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From Blackrock to Ethiopia and back again – Leo Cullen set to face pal Ian Madigan


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Ian Madigan, now of Ulster, and Leinster head coach Leo Cullen on a visit to an Ethiopian refugee camp with GOAL in 2013

Ian Madigan, now of Ulster, and Leinster head coach Leo Cullen on a visit to an Ethiopian refugee camp with GOAL in 2013

Ian Madigan, now of Ulster, and Leinster head coach Leo Cullen on a visit to an Ethiopian refugee camp with GOAL in 2013

When Leo Cullen and Ian Madigan visited an Ethiopian refugee camp back in 2013, the then Leinster teammates would never have envisaged that seven years later they would be going up against each other on opposite sides of the touchline.

The trip, which Cullen speaks of as a life-changing experience, opened their eyes to life outside the so-called rugby bubble.

For 80 minutes this evening, their friendship will be put on hold as Madigan makes his first start for an Ulster team looking to derail Leinster’s perfect season.

It’s bound to be an emotional occasion for the out-half who will come up against his boyhood side, but it will pale in significance to what he experienced alongside Cullen in Ethiopia.

By the time Cullen had returned from his stint with Leicester, Madigan had broken into the Leinster team and from there, they formed a strong bond, which Cullen still values to this day.

“Me and Mads go a while back, two Blackrock boys,” the Leinster head coach said.

“We went away on a GOAL trip to Ethiopia, would you believe, and spent a few days in a refugee camp in Dolo Ado.

“GOAL were looking for a bit of a mix and that’s why they had me and Mads. They needed to have someone a bit better looking for the photos!

“It was a brilliant trip, an amazing experience for the two of us. Very, very different side to life if you can imagine refugees coming across the border.

“They are completely stranded with their families and in terms of what GOAL did with the nutrition product and the role they had there, basically feeding starving people which was an amazing eye-opener for us.

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“I’ll never forget it. I have a picture of Mads and I at home with about 10,000 children so that was GOAL’s project there.

“They had a project in Addis Ababa as well, taking care of street kids that end up in these shelters for various reasons, none of them very good, obviously.”

Madigan has already admitted that he feels as though he has a point to prove in returning to Ireland, so going up against a Cullen-led Leinster is bound to add to his motivation levels.

“Mads is a great character,” Cullen enthused. “He obviously played a big role when he was here. Great versatility and reliability in terms of his goal-kicking which was of an amazing quality. Works very hard, great pro.

“He has spent time in France and England and he is back up in Ulster now. On his day he is an excellent player. I am sure he has a big point to prove now. There’s a few other Leinster fellas there as well.”

Madigan’s half-back partner John Cooney, as well as fellow Dubliners Jordi Murphy, Marty Moore, Eric O’Sullivan, Alan O’Connor, Nick Timoney and David Shanahan will all be eager to get one over on their home province.

Ed Byrne will captain Leinster at the Aviva this evening, which caps a remarkable journey for him personally following a career-threatening knee injury.

Tom Clarkson, Leinster’s latest talent off the production line, is also set to make his debut from the bench, with Cullen once again showing that he is not afraid to put his trust in youth.

Even with an entirely new starting XV, Leinster look well-placed to complete the regular season with a 100 per cent winning record.

Ulster will have a lot to say about that, however, in what should be a cracking tussle.

Verdict: Leinster

ULSTER – J Stockdale; M Faddes, J Hume, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; I Madigan, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Herring, T O’Toole; S Carter (capt), K Treadwell; M Rea, J Murphy, M Coetzee. Reps: J Andrew, K McCall, M Moore, A O’Connor, N Timoney, D Shanahan, B Johnston, L Ludik.

LEINSTER – R Kearney; H Keenan, R O’Loughlin, C Frawley, C Kelleher; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; E Byrne (capt), S Cronin, M Bent; D Toner, R Molony; J Murphy, W Connors, M Deegan. Reps: J Tracy, M Milne, T Clarkson, R Ruddock, S Penny, R Osborne, H Byrne, J O’Brien.

REF – G Clancy (Ireland)

  • Ulster v Leinster, Live, eir Sport 1, 7.35

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