Tuesday 20 March 2018

Neil Francis: Outside shot Madigan too talented for Schmidt to ignore

Ian Madigan ticks all the right boxes to be Ireland's next No 13, writes Neil Francis

'Ian Madigan already replaced Brian O'Driscoll in the centre this season, why not try him at outside in Argentina?' Photo: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
'Ian Madigan already replaced Brian O'Driscoll in the centre this season, why not try him at outside in Argentina?' Photo: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

'I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced; I fear something terrible has happened.' The planet Alderaan had just been obliterated by the Empire's Death Star and these were the words uttered by Obi-Wan Kenobi. I suppose if you wear a brown monk's robe, hold a long fluorescent tube in your hand and say that in a plummy RSC voice you might just get away with crap.

There will be a disturbance in the force next week. Brian O'Driscoll hangs up his lightsaber and walks into the sunset, quite probably without a Rabo winner's medal the way things are going.

The day after the final all those Leinster players will join their Ireland team-mates and fly to Buenos Aires. Business class or not, that is just tough on the body. The two-Test tour will not be known as the tour of Argentina but the 'who the hell are we going to replace Brian O'Driscoll with?' tour. The answer to that is quite simple: Luke Skywalker Fitzgerald. He knows the position from as far back as his school days. He has all the requisite skills, the problem is . . .

Joe Schmidt wants a replacement who will be there for not just the 2015 World Cup but the one after that as well and he needs him in the system pretty much straight away. In modern rugby, the game evolves and roles within the team structure change, and some elicit a greater degree of magnification. Two positions stand out now where the proponent must be first-class and that player must almost be a master purveyor at his art: tight prop and outside centre. Ireland are in trouble in both positions.

England host next year's World Cup and expect to do well, and by well I mean win it. England, despite having an Aladdin's cave of second- and back-rows and savvy halves, will fail because they don't have a world-class tighthead – Dan Cole's neck injury looks career-ending. England don't have an outside centre either and that will cost them.

To hell with England, what about Ireland?

The role of second centre is so niche that our second-best centre Gordon D'Arcy couldn't even countenance a move out, principally because his passing is just not up to scratch. It is more than adequate as an inside centre but the demands there are totally different.

Whatever about the tries that O'Driscoll scores, his contribution as a team player is characterised by tries he creates. Most fans could count a dozen tries which would not have happened if the prior pass or intervention had not come from O'Driscoll. In some cases these were little more than a pop pass of one metre. Reading what is in front of you is more important than reading what is outside of you. The ability to pass precisely in traffic is a very rare commodity.

Fitzgerald can do all of that. He would be defensively replete as well but you just figure that Schmidt would do the maths between now and the 2019 World Cup – 50-55 Tests – and the likelihood of Fitzgerald completing half of these would be low. Wingers can come and go, centres are like furniture, so whoever takes the 13 jersey has to do it for six or seven years. The four centres named on Monday to tour are not good enough to play at 13. Luke Marshall will play inside. The merits and demerits of the other three are inconsequential – they are not fit for purpose.

I can't write with absolute certainty about Robbie Henshaw because I have not seen him play enough. Unless I am specifically instructed to watch Connacht by my editors, I switch them off every time they are on the television. Henshaw might look good playing in a poor Connacht side but very often players who are in that position fall Icarus-like out of the sky when they try to bridge the gap between two very different territories.

Paddy Jackson, I am certain, will succeed Johnny Sexton, later rather than sooner. He is a clever player and will become a first-class game-manager. He has survived that tricky first cap / first season period. He is good enough now and will get better. He has outplayed his only serious and immediate rival, Ian Madigan, all season at provincial level but drops out of this Ireland squad on the back of a stress fracture in his back – a curious injury for a young man.

Madigan gets a second chance. The 12 minutes that he closed out successfully for Ireland in the hottest furnace of all in Paris against the French for the Six Nations championship have been forgotten and his awful performance in Ravenhill a few weeks ago superseded his performance in green. Madigan's less-than-casual attempted chip over Jackson was a seismic shift in that game. The blank expression on Madigan's face told a story. If he had been in a hospital at that time they would have switched his monitor off. It is the Kryptonite of outhalves – careless errors. Madigan made five or six that night and with Joe Schmidt watching in the stand, Ireland's coach stuck it in the memory bank for his team selection for Argentina. 'That young man is making far too many mistakes. I don't want him in charge of running my game plan from the most important position on the field.' Madigan claimed the headlines for his omission, but once Sexton became available it meant Madigan would not be going. Schmidt is ruthless and won't tolerate poor performances.

If, at this stage of his career, Madigan can't be trusted to control and manage a game at international level, then the problem is that he has too much natural ability to be left rotting, if not in a meaningless round-robin in Romania, certainly the Wolfhounds on a two-game basis in January. If Schmidt has seen Jackson's future graph arc in the right direction, then Madigan must be accommodated. If Ulster are prepared to accommodate Jared Payne at outside centre (forlornly) what about Leinster? We got a snapshot last week. If Gordon D'Arcy's career was revolutionised on the back of one chance performance 12 years ago at inside centre why would Madigan's 20-minute cameo not do the same?

He already replaced O'Driscoll in the centre this season, why not try him at outside in Argentina? Let me see what's required in that position. Pace – check; a great passing instinct – check; strong intelligent defender – check; the ability to step or beat players – check. Madigan, at six feet tall and nearly 15 stone, is physically big enough. His key strength is that he is a try scorer. He high-scored for Leinster with nine from the outhalf position last season and Darren Cave and Jared Payne weren't particularly impressive in trying to stop him in the clutch moment.

Madigan is the best and most reliable replacement for O'Driscoll. Joe just needs to realise that now and start him twice the week after next. Sorted then.

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