'I feel I'm ready. My main focus has been on improving myself'
Ian Madigan's rapid rise is about to gain further momentum in an Ireland jersey, says Brendan Fanning
If there is a classic tale of redemption, close to home, then it is Ian Madigan's Cinderella story when he was fitted with the Pro12 Golden Boot a couple of weeks ago. In a season where he won Amlin and Pro12 medals, made his debut for Ireland, was voted by his peers as Leinster Player of the Year, and was one of only two Irish players in the Pro12 Team of the Year, getting that shoe snugly around his right foot had special resonance.
If Madigan plays until he is 35 and generates a record number of column inches, the events of a winter's day in 2007 will still be cropping up. He was playing at 10 for Blackrock in a senior schools cup match against Kilkenny College, and things had become acutely awkward for the red-hot favourites. As if according to script however, the game drifted so far into injury time as to be on a different place on the map, when of course an escape hatch presented itself in the shape of a handy penalty. Madigan missed it.
Given the crazy pressure and profile that attends this competition, it genuinely became a life-shaping moment. And evidently not just for him. Imagine fetching up to school the next day then. Eh, how did that go?
"It was a kind of surreal experience," he says. "Obviously I was devastated to have lost. To have knocked out the team that I played on with my friends for the previous six years, since first year in Willow Park, to have knocked them out effectively and prevented them getting the opportunity of beating St Michael's in the semi-final was heartbreaking.
"I knew deep down that that was going to be the end of some of the lads' playing careers. That was the pinnacle for them. I remember going in to school the next morning and I was so grateful for it – everybody rowed in behind me. It was something I'll never forget. The support structures in that school are incredible and I'd be surprised if they were in any other school. Has it made me stronger in the long run, has it made me hungrier? Yes. Definitely."
The measure of Madigan's strength now is that life after Jonny Sexton is something Leinster fans can contemplate with some confidence. When Sexton was rushed into the gap left by the banjaxed Felipe Contepomi in 2009, the understudy had played only three full games that season, and made just 36 in all over his four seasons with the province. Madigan has played 21 of Leinster's 22 matches in the regular league this season alone. He has over 80 games to his credit. He knows his way around the place.
"I certainly feel I'm ready," he says. "There are a few different parts to Jonny's situation with Felipe and mine now. Obviously given that Felipe was a non-Irish international, he was playing in Leinster a lot more but when Jonny was playing internationals I was getting more opportunities than he would have been three or four years ago. But to be honest I wouldn't be comparing my situation to his. My main focus has been on just improving myself. I've plenty of experience and I think I've a pretty good win ratio as well."
The confirmation of all this will come in North America over the next fortnight when Les Kiss will probably share the starts between himself and Paddy Jackson against USA in Houston on Saturday and then Canada in Vancouver a week later. It's not a huge stretch to think that Madigan could have started for the Lions before he did for Ireland. The 'Are you Free?' letter dropped through his letterbox just when his form post-Six Nations was re-emphasising how not starting him in that tournament had been a blunder.
The letter with the Lions crest was good for the confidence, which as you would expect in an outhalf is recession-proof. His speed out of the traps has taken him to nine tries this season, one better than last term and the second year running he topped that chart for Leinster. His all-round game ia already good, and when he gets his spiral kicking up to the same standard as his drop punting and kicking off the tee, where stats of almost 87 per cent won him the Golden Boot, he'll be be even more threatening.
"The more kicks you have: the cross-field kick, the chip, the drop punt, the side drop punt, the spiral – if you have all of them in your game then it means you're a lot harder to control. Brock James can kick the ball a very long way. He can spiral and he can punt and you need to be very careful where you stand with him – if you stand too flat he'll put it over your head; if you stand too deep he'll chip it. So as regards video work beforehand on kickers he'd have been the person I had to do the most on. I'd like to think that people coming up against me will have to do a lot of work."
This didn't happen overnight. To some of us it was apparent that he was a better bet than Paddy Jackson or Ronan O'Gara in the Six Nations, and you wonder did the mounting clamour for his inclusion have any effect on his own outlook?
"I certainly wasn't trying to ignore it," he says. "For me, my main focus at the time was just to look after myself and make sure that I was in a good head space myself, and if the opportunity arose I was ready to take it. It was weird how it happened, with Jonny getting injured and then Rog didn't get picked. They were two massive names and then suddenly there was massive media attention. When you're in camp it's not like the players are waking up very morning and reading the papers or listening to the radio – you're in your own kind of bubble here."
Still, did he not fear that if Declan Kidney did a Harry Houdini and hung on for another two years that he'd lose his mind with frustration?
"To be honest, I try to avoid thinking like that because it's quite a negative way of thinking. The power of your mind is a massive thing. I stayed as positive as I could and went out to enjoy every session. I felt if I did that I could trick myself into thinking that the break would come. It's similar to place-kicking in a way: if you have a negative thought process about a kick the chances are you'll probably miss it whereas if you feel good about yourself, regardless of where the kick is, you convince yourself – 'Oh I love taking penalties from here!' Even if it's in a really difficult position, chances are it will go over."
It was four months ago and he was driving to Galway with Luke Fitzgerald for the Wolfhounds game with the Saxons when Madigan decided to turn his phone on to check some messages. There were more than 20 incoming, all saying that Jonny Sexton was heading to Paris. He claims not to have missed a beat – that life with Sexton could have been as good as life without him given the amount of game time they had together this season.
The impending arrival of Jimmy Gopperth will be a challenge, but not as intimidating as if Leinster had recruited from the top bracket: a Nick Evans for example, or even Matt Giteau. Gopperth will know that the incumbent represents now what Leinster are about.
"Before Joe (Schmidt) arrived, I'd say I never really had a certain brand of rugby, but Joe, along with Richie Murphy, built that brand for me," Madigan says. "I'm now very clear when I go out to play what I'm going to do and that's a nice position for me to be in. At the same time I've spoken to Niall Morris – he's over in Leicester – and he speaks very highly of Matt O'Connor and he was very disappointed he was leaving the club. I've chatted to Matt briefly over the phone and I don't think he's going to try and reinvent the wheel or change things massively but I'm sure he'll make subtle changes that will bring Leinster further along hopefully."
Madigan's inclusion in this Ireland tour was hardly from left field, but he got a few texts from his old schoolmates all the same. Not as sharp as the ones that popped up on screen when the Golden Boot award was announced though. 'Congrats on the award – why the hell couldn't you do that for us?'
"It's nice of them to remember!" he says.
If he hadn't recovered he wouldn't be getting any texts at all.