Sunday 21 July 2019

Neil Francis: Ian Madigan's mistakes against Toulon were explainable, but unacceptable

Madigan's off day sums up alarming drop in standards from inside backs

A dejected Ian Madigan leaves the pitch after Leinster's extra-time defeat to Toulon last Sunday
A dejected Ian Madigan leaves the pitch after Leinster's extra-time defeat to Toulon last Sunday
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Was this the day the music died? The four best sides in Europe played a counter-intuitive form of rugby - not one of these sides over the weekend would play without fear and the quest for percentages became all-encompassing.

The side in blue played with admirable stubbornness in the face of the odds - you would go so far as to say grace under pressure. Leinster, in some phases, were remarkably resilient but that suggests daring when the truth was that they were quite inhibited.

Courage was at a premium but that was the very least we expected from them. JFK was hardly thinking that far ahead to 2015 when he said: "Effort and courage are not enough without purpose and direction."

The reality is that Leinster's inside backs failed them. There was a lack of guile and a complete absence of awareness of the things that they were taught as younger players. The game on Sunday from the start was moribund with the pragmatic dogma of two coaches who have brought the game down to its lowest common denominator. If Leinster had obeyed the fundamentals, they would have prevailed.

Ian Madigan had one of the worst games I have ever seen him play. Hard to know where to start - probably at the beginning.

The toss is won or lost well before the teams head out onto the paddock. Leinster would kick off - what would they choose to do? My thoughts would have been to engage the Toulon pack at the earliest moment and - there isn't a clever way to say it - get stuck in. Leinster are pretty good at getting height into their drop-offs and getting the ball to inch over the 10-metre line. It doesn't matter if it is Bakkies Botha or Ali Williams who is ready to receive it.


Uncertainty is the friend of the underdog in these situations. Leinster, on instructions, chose not to physically confront their opponents but decided to kick long into the corner and chase hard and close down the angle on the relieving kick. This is something Leinster don't do that often, but a lineout, put-in near the 22, was a reasonable starting gambit.

The players were out for nearly 30 minutes before kick-off. There was a film of moisture covering the entire pitch. The ball would be hard to handle at pace and it would skid when it hit the ground from a kick. Experienced players know immediately how to gauge their kicks once they have had five minutes to practise on it.

The lack of care shown by Madigan from the first kick-off was wanton as it rolled past the dead-ball line for a scrum back at the halfway line. That sort of carelessness is unforgivable. When it happened again 30 minutes later when Leinster were 9-6 up and comfortably into the game - you thought there would be a horse-whipping at half-time.

In the championship minutes just before half-time, Madigan, who had slotted into the five-eighth position, foisted/hoisted a truly hopeless cross-kick to Delon Armitage. No chance to chase, no pressure - a free ball, a turnover. Madigan is an important player for Leinster - where was he mentally? Three vital concessions of the ball was unacceptable.

In the 64th minute, Madigan missed an easy enough penalty to the left which hit the post - he snatched at it but in every game you will have one bad one. A few minutes later, again operating as a kicking centre, Leinster had tried to draw Toulon up to the line and Madigan had a chance to push Toulon deep but got his kick blocked down, but Leinster recovered themselves.

Five minutes later, Leinster's 12 put a cross-field kick directly into touch. If games of this nature are won by small margins, Madigan's unforeseen poor form and its effect on the match suddenly became more than that. Some of Madigan's mistakes were explainable but most of them were not - lack of concentration is just unacceptable.

Bryan Habana's intercept try was a case study of how this team has receded, how its core values have waned and how the fundamentals of attacking principle, which was the foundation stone of side, have deteriorated to an unacceptable level.

Toulon took the ball forward into midfield through Alexandre Menini and, as the prop went to ground, Richardt Strauss effected a brilliant but illegal steal at the ruck.

Turnover ball from a ruck in the centre of the field with most of the Toulon pack in it and their backline at sixes and sevens is the lifeblood of a side that waits patiently for the perfect counter-attacking moment.

If ever there was a half-chance in a match of no chances this was it. Strauss took nothing out of the ball when he got back onto his side of the ruck; he flicked it to Eoin Reddan - in the trade it is called s**t-hot ball, manna from heaven. A five-to-three overlap. Run straight, step in and hands would do it. The Leinster backline was in defensive formation but managed to back-pedal quickly into something resembling depth.

The ball went to Madigan and from the back-field camera angle he was directly facing the posts. Jordi Murphy was outside him but was never going to get the ball. Murphy is an intelligent footballing forward and he would have recognised what was on. All he had to do was take the pass, step inside to check the on-rushing Rudi Wulf and feed Ben Te'o. Quick hands, run straight.

By the time Madigan threw the pass, he had drifted six metres cross-field. Te'o had crabbed eight metres cross-field and even if he had caught the ball, the move was over because he would have cut across the on-rushing Rob Kearney, who couldn't believe that his channel was being blocked up with his own players. Even if Madigan had popped to Murphy and looped him, that would have checked Wulf and caught Habana square.

The Springbok winger was 20 metres away from the ball when it came to Madigan; you might say it was made easy for him but the really good players know when the moment is about to come and they commit themselves to it totally. You can't coach prescience or predatory instinct.

Blinding pace too is something that you are born with. Habana backed himself and didn't have to think too much about what he should do about the tempting lofted pass put out in front of him.


How did it come to this? A moment when Leinster should have line-bust and finished highlighted their fall from grace as an attacking side. This type of a situation was first nature to them two or three years ago - now it's alien to them. Madigan's pass was symptomatic of the whole team's malaise over the last 18 months.

It is only in exceptional circumstances that you replace your outstanding goal-kicker - these were those unfortunately.

The game should have been over well before that. Jimmy Gopperth is a handy player - but a class off European Cup knockout standard. His tactical kicking can be good on his day but on Sunday it was less than ordinary.

You would want everything else to go well for you in a match where Isaac Boss and Gopperth were half-backing a team contending to be champions of Europe.

For Leinster, their set-piece and breakdown work went very well, but their pack were not rewarded with control and direction.

Johnny Sexton controls things and knocks over clutch drop-goals in big matches - but Gopperth is not in that class. As Leinster got into good attacking position, they centred up the ball at the posts.

Jack McGrath and Sean O'Brien took the ball five metres closer to the posts but on both occasions - Mathieu Bastareaud on McGrath and Steffon Armitage on O'Brien - those muscular limpets had to be dislodged with a mighty clear-out by the Leinster pack.

One more recycle and referee Wayne Barnes would have them for holding on to the ball or going over the top. Leinster had got as close as was prudent to go and so Gopperth dropped back into the pocket and took a good pass from Reddan.

Certainly the onside chase did enough to hurry him but the head came up, the leg snapped at it and he didn't follow through. It was always going right - it was a bit like Andy Goode's effort in the Wasps game in Coventry.

Freddie Michalak or Brock James wouldn't have got it either, but the fact that Gopperth still had to chase it and will it to go straight told you it wasn't hit with the conviction of an European Cup-winning out-half.

Matt Giteau will get Toulon over the line in two weeks' time.

Leinster? They should have won that match.

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