Saturday 24 August 2019

Tony Ward: Now or never for Ian Madigan - he needs to leave Leinster

Outstanding talent: Ian Madigan escapes two tackles
Outstanding talent: Ian Madigan escapes two tackles
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Push me to identify Ian Madigan's most effective position right now and I will struggle. If truly honest, I will say 'impact sub'. As he has shown time and again for Leinster and Ireland over the past two seasons, when called into action by Matt O'Connor or Joe Schmidt, the Madigan impact was immediate.

Yet as the talented former Blackrock College protégé approaches the zenith of his playing career, his best playing years, isn't sad that he is not already recognised for the outstanding talent he is?

Take any position from ten out and Madigan has played there. And lest we forget he was the official cover for scrum-half beyond Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan at the World Cup.

All of which suggests a gifted rugby player very much the victim of his own versatility. Surprise, surprise but he also happens to be a rugby player who loves playing. Whatever criticisms might be levelled his way, nobody can say he hasn't accommodated his various coaches.

Leinster pair Sean O'Brien Ian Madigan have been linked with moves away from the Irish province.
Leinster pair Sean O'Brien Ian Madigan have been linked with moves away from the Irish province.

In a sense that has made it easy for Schmidt et al in that when it comes to nominating your number 23 - the versatility back - picking Madigan was and continues to be a no-brainer.

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But there comes a point when the player needs to re-assess. There is nothing worse than being on the subs' bench - take it from one who knows - and yet it is part of the package and more than ever in today's game. But Madigan has served his time; his loyalty to the collective cause whether in blue or green has been nigh on faultless.

And yet for all that after the best part of six years playing for the province of his birth in the town he loves so well the time has come for a potentially great player to find himself or, more specifically, find the position in which he can best express the God-given talent we all know to be there.

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I still believe he has what it takes to be a top-class No 10 but clearly not at Leinster. How could it be with the most recent Lions' out-half holding down the slot? Johnny Sexton may be experiencing a glitch in form of late but he will be Leo Cullen's playmaker-in-chief going forward.

The head coach is absolutely up front in pinpointing the current situation. "He (Madigan) played a lot of 12 for us last year and a bit at 10 and that will be very similar this year," he said, adding: "I don't see Ian's versatility hindering his career at Leinster or internationally. It gets him picked more often; that is the reality."

Leinster's Ian Madigan in action during squad training. Leinster Rugby Squad Training. Rosemount, UCD, Belfield, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Leinster's Ian Madigan in action during squad training. Leinster Rugby Squad Training. Rosemount, UCD, Belfield, Dublin. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

It is difficult to argue with that assessment. It could just as easily be Joe Schmidt uttering the same line.

I feel for Madigan in his current dilemma but equally I don't believe there is a Leinster supporter out there who will begrudge the province's most versatile back a move to further his out-half aspirations.

And therein lies the nub of the issue, one that only the player himself can answer. Does he want to play out his career under the guise of super sub and be forever remembered in that vein?

The decision is with the player and by obvious extension the IRFU too. The governing body has been exemplary in the handling of its players. Player welfare has been at the top of the Union agenda. That said, and with David Nucifora now well established as IRFU performance director, we would all like to see a more fluid and prudent use of relatively scarce resources.

So when a player with obvious Ireland potential is struggling for game-time at his province then clearly a move to one of the other three should be top of the developmental agenda.

Madigan is but one case in point. There is a degree of movement at present but it tends to be at Academy/B&I team level. In general, the higher the profile of the player the less likely it is to happen and that is a principle that needs to be addressed.

Ireland's Ian Madigan
Ireland's Ian Madigan

Were I in Madigan's boots I would be looking for a change in course. My preference would be to stay home and I'll leave the sums to speculation other than to say the colour red would loom large. In tandem with the Madigan dilemma is that of Robbie Henshaw at Connacht.

They are not the same and while of course I get the obvious desire of Leinster (beavering away feverishly in the background for quite some time now) and Munster to want the up-and-coming star of Irish rugby in their colours next season, I hope he stays put.

Unlike Madigan, Henshaw, another who epitomises versatility, is a nailed-on starter for Pat Lam whether wearing 12, 13 or 15.

These are exciting times for Connacht rugby and with the increased support of the IRFU (not quite four proud provinces but getting there) the potential is great to say the least.

Much like Kieran Marmion, I would love to see Henshaw extend his contract at Connacht and in doing so hope that the Union (within reason) make it worth his while.

What a positive message that would send out. To hell with the feeder tag and no longer to hell or to Connacht.

To that end, this evening's trip to Limerick is massive. A defeat will not break their season but given their form to date, plus that winless streak at Thomond stretching back to 1986, a very long time before professionalism kicked in, the incentive is massive.

Munster might not be setting the world on fire but wins over Glasgow and Ulster, followed by technical efficiency and the requisite degree of patience in accumulating the bonus against Treviso, suggests a work in progress but positive progress at that.

It's still early days but signs are of a developing edge behind the scrum. Tyler Bleyendaal has still to establish his credentials as has Gonzalez Amorosino but in Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Francis Saili, Gerhard van den Heever, Ronan O'Mahony and Simon Zebo, there is the makings of an attacking unit singularly lacking in recent times. Younger three-quarters of rich promise like Stephen Fitzgerald, Rory Scannell and Darren Sweetnam are also making their way.

Enough to challenge for the top prize in Europe I doubt but for sure the iconic stadium will be heaving just like old times when Leicester come to town in a fortnight.

But first up it's Connacht and that top-of-the-table clash, a statement which in itself has an extraordinary ring to it. I repeat that irrespective of who wins out in the Pro12 race in the end my dearest wish is that Connacht qualify for next season's premier European competition off their own bat.

Until they make it to the ball on merit, like it or loathe it, they will continue to be the Cinderella province.

Beating Munster in Thomond is still a big ask but if there is real substance to this Pro12 challenge then the time for delivery is now.

In a sense this Thomond clash runs parallel to the top two meeting in the Football Premier League across the water. For Man U read Munster and for Leicester substitute Connacht.

Unfortunately for John Muldoon and the men from the west, unlike James Vardy and co, they are denied home comforts so if they are to continue to set the Pro12 pace they are going to have to do it the hard way. Almost three full decades since they last won at the high altar of Munster rugby is one statistic they could do without.

Of course Connacht have prospered on the back of the World Cup given just two players - Henshaw and Nathan White - were involved so I guess it fair to suggest this the first really true test of their domestic title credentials.

All that said when Munster are low-key they are dangerous and right now they are well below the radar.

Can't think of a better way of shaking off World Cup blues.

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