O'Connor hint puts dent in Madigan's No 10 hopes
SMALL surprise if thoughts of deja vu cross the mind of the talented Ian Madigan. First there was Jonathan Sexton and now there is Jimmy Gopperth.
Madigan was obliged to play back-up out-half to Sexton last season and Leinster's new coach Matt O'Connor yesterday offered hints that he may be obliged to play second fiddle again, this time to Gopperth.
What is beyond doubt is that Madigan faces an uphill battle to force his way into O'Connor's starting Heineken Cup team.
O'Connor didn't come right out and endorse Gopperth as his first-choice No 10 yesterday but he certainly gave a strong impression that is the case.
Madigan's game-time so far this season has been compromised because of the IRFU Player Welfare protocols and in his absence Gopperth has been excellent.
The former junior All Black has started and finished all three Celtic League games so far this season at out-half. Madigan is likely to be given the No 10 shirt for Friday's outing against Cardiff (kick-off 7.35) but he has a lot of ground to make up if he is to overtake his more experienced competition.
O'Connor's suggestion that both players will be involved in all Leinster's match-day squads for the bigger games will be cold comfort to the out-half who is on back-up detail.
He also suggested he will adopt a "horses for courses" approach to selection, but there was no mistaking that a challenge was being laid down.
Madigan has Friday's game and, probably, the outing against Munster the following weekend to stake his claim.
"From a team perspective Jimmy has done a really good job for us," said O'Connor. "Ian is still relatively inexperienced in relation to being the first-up guy starting in that shirt. It takes a bit of adjustment to that and we'll be patient with him.
"If we need a little bit more experience and need to look at using Jimmy, depending on who we're playing, we'll do that.
"If we think there is an opportunity for Ian's skill-set to give us a better opportunity to win the game we will probably go with that.
"Those guys will be involved in the game, in the 23, every week. It is not like they are in and out of the group. They will be contributing regardless of whether they are starting or on the bench."
O'Connor will continue to absorb his Ireland and Lions players into the team on Friday night.
He confirmed that Rob Kearney and Cian Healy will start against Cardiff, while Jamie Heaslip suggested on Monday that he will also start – "well Jamie picks the team so ... ." O'Connor laughed – while the coach also confirmed Brian O'Driscoll will "play some part".
He also expects to have Lote Tuqiri, Fergus McFadden and Sean O'Brien available for the Munster game if not sooner. Tuqiri might even be fit for Friday's game.
Shane Jennings fractured a bone in his hand and no date has been suggested for a comeback yet.
Leinster are being more patient with Luke Fitzgerald's recovery: "Luke's injury is dragging on. It's not a significant injury but we want to get to the bottom of it so that he's 100pc when he does play and can do himself justice, said O'Connor, who was also quick to dampen down expectations in light of the returning internationals, although he will be looking for a marked improvement on last weekend's performance.
"It's not the end of the world. We're pretty realistic about it. I didn't have to drive the message too hard with the players because they were pretty unhappy with the performance themselves.
"They're a pretty experienced bunch and understand what it means to wear the shirt and the responsibility that goes with that.
"So there didn't have to be a lot of screaming and shouting from the coaches' end.
"They were disappointed. They arrived Monday with a sharpened focus to be much better than we were in Glasgow – disappointed by the performance, not necessarily by the result and hopefully we'll see the reaction to that this week."
The availability of the internationals should help improve things. There will be a period of adjustment, though, O'Connor emphasised.
"The guys coming back on the staggered return makes it difficult. It means that you're probably not playing the brand of rugby you want to as early as potentially otherwise but it's a long season," he said.
"The better the player coming back the less time they need to adjust. And we've got world-class players coming back so that's certainly a plus."