Thursday 22 February 2018

Tony Ward: Mercurial playmaker must come home after courageous decision - and Connacht looks a perfect fit

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

At the start of the season when I was browsing through the French squads before for the Champions Cup, I was slightly taken aback when I came to Bordeaux-Begles.

It was the positional description attached to new signing Ian Madigan as out-half/full-back that gave me reason to ponder.

Given that there were three other players listed as specialist out-halves - Lionel Beauxis, Simon Hickey and Romain Lonca - the suspicion 'out of the frying pan, into the fire' did cross my mind.

However, at the start of the season, the former Leinster player was first-choice No 10 at Bordeaux, but then he got injured, and when he returned he had lost his place to Hickey, and he has been short of game-time ever since.

In asking for an early contract release, Madigan has shown great courage. Yes it is an admission of getting it wrong, but what shame in that?

Professional sport is a fickle business with a limited playing span and Madigan, who turns 28 next month, wants to maximise his career in terms of game-time.

While Madigan's agent David McHugh confirmed to me yesterday that there has been considerable interest from English Premiership clubs, he was at pains to emphasise that this request is not about money.

I still have great difficulty with the double standards applying to certain Irish players playing abroad, but I would love to see Madigan come back home.

I urge him to investigate the possibility of joining a province, with Connacht the obvious destination.

Yesterday's other major announcement suggests more exciting times ahead for Connacht.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a perfect coaching fit to replace Pat Lam. That said - and my biggest fear was of a new broom from whoever his successor might be - the announcement of former All Black centre Kieran Keane as incoming head coach suggests there will be continuity at the very least.

I don't know Keane personally but what I do know is that the most exciting rugby I watched last year, by a country mile, was from the Waikato Chiefs, where he was assistant coach.

The Chiefs didn't win the Super Rugby title but their rugby was riveting, with offloading at pace and with finger-tip accuracy.

That doesn't happen by chance. It is driven by repetitive practice on the training field and then having the coaching courage to unleash the shackles in the white heat of battle.

What Lam did at Connacht in 2016, Dave Rennie and Keane almost repeated with the Chiefs before falling at the penultimate hurdle to eventual winners the Hurricanes.

Aaron Cruden was the pivotal force behind the scrum, and with young All Black sensation Damian McKenzie dazzling out of position at full-back, the Chiefs' attacking was mesmeric.

With one of the architects of that style on his way to the Sportsground, and an inventive playmaker now on the market . . .well, if I was Connacht CEO Willie Ruane, I'd certainly be putting in a call.

Irish Independent

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