Tony Ward: Picking Madigan to cover scrum-half in World Cup squad would be lunacy
Leinster playmaker’s versatility a huge plus for Ireland but he is not qualified to fill in at No 9
All the right things have been said but today the real rugby finally gets under way. What transpired in Cardiff and at the Aviva against the Scots was relevant, but only to a point.
With the visit of a very different and much more formidable Welsh side to the team we faced in the Millennium Stadium three weeks ago, the build-up to the tournament begins in earnest.
And with the 31-man Irish World Cup squad set to be announced imminently, today’s clash at Lansdowne Road is the last-chance saloon for a lot of players.
Joe Schmidt says that some of the players on provincial duty this weekend could still make it while others in Ireland’s match-day 23 might not make the cut – and I don’t doubt him
As I see it, there are five players teetering on the brink.
Dave Kilcoyne’s chances hinge on Cian Healy’s neck. If Healy (below) is deemed fit enough to come on board when the Pool matches get under way, he and Leinster colleague Jack McGrath are set in stone as the travelling specialist looseheads.
Once Richardt Strauss gets another run under his belt, he will join Sean Cronin and Rory Best among the three hookers set to be selected.
Other teams are gambling with just two hookers. That is their call. It is madness.
The front-row contingent will then be completed by tighthead duo Mike Ross (enjoying a rare break from match-day duty today) and Nathan White, on the back of a late run up the inside lane, leaving Michael Bent in the role of dual prop given his proven ability to pack down on either side.
Tadhg Furlong is likely to make his Ireland debut off the bench in place of White some time after the hour mark today.
Any involvement will stand him in good stead going forward, and with Marty Moore a growing doubt, Wexford man Furlong could well establish himself as next in line behind Ross and White.
Of the other replacements, Felix Jones and Paddy Jackson appear to have most to prove and will be champing at the bit to get an opportunity to impress.
To me, Jackson should be a banker as replacement out-half, starting if Johnny Sexton is ever ruled out.
However, when Sexton plays, Ian Madigan should be on the bench ahead of Jackson, covering all three midfield positions.
Such is Madigan’s versatility – although I don’t buy nonsense being peddled of late that he could cover scrum-half as well – that he could easily end up playing more games than any other Irish player at the World Cup.
There was a ludicrous case made that because Madigan had filled in effectively at scrum-half for Leinster during a sin-bin period (in other words for ten minutes) in a Pro12 match, he should be nailed on as Ireland’s third-choice No 9. Rubbish.
There is no comparison with Australia’s Matt Giteau, who has played in both half-back positions plus centre at Super Rugby and international level. His return means the Wallabies can get away with just two specialist nines with no worries at all.
Of course it would be great if the ultra-versatile Madigan could fill that role, as it would enable Schmidt to select another three-quarter in his squad. I get the rationale, but it is certainly not a risk worth taking.
Schmidt often goes with his gut instinct but that would be a step too far.
So it’s a straight call between Isaac Boss and Kieran Marmion for the third scrum-half slot, with the Leinster man, though out of sorts against the Scots, still leading the way.
Full-back Felix Jones, I feel, needs to do something special – Simon Zebo’s tour de force against the Scots has put him in pole position, ahead of his Munster team-mate.
Aside from White, the other seven forwards starting today will all make the departure lounge comfortably, with Iain Henderson, in particular, given a golden opportunity to make a case for a starting berth.
Both Henderson and Donnacha Ryan are breathing down Devin Toner’s neck. Exactly as Schmidt would want it.
Our premier combination comes together at half-back for the first time since Murrayfield back in March. Neither Sexton nor Conor Murray has anything to prove but their service and general play could have a huge impact on the selection hopes of Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls.
Here I don’t envy the head coach at all.
With Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne also in the frame (I would pick all three), the dilemma is obvious.
One looks set to lose out and I suspect that could be Kearney the younger. Despite his long injury lay-off – he missed the Six Nations – he looked lively and inventive in his limited time on against the Scots.
Kearney is part of a group along with Fitzgerald, Earls, Kilcoyne, Furlong and Jones most under the spotlight against a powerful looking Welsh line-up bent on revenge.
Warren Gatland was seething in the aftermath of the preliminary warm-up. He was less than gracious in his assessment of the Irish performance and playing style.
It will be interesting to see how he goes about dismantling an Irish template he describes as simple and repetitive.
With the possible exception of Scott Baldwin, Luke Charteris and Sam Warburton, this looks as close to full strength as Wales could be at this point in time.
The hooking position is up for grabs, providing Ken Owens with everything to play for, while Exeter Chiefs tighthead Tomas Francis makes his eagerly-awaited debut given the doubt surrounding first-choice Samson Lee.
The seemingly ever present Alun Wyn Jones will captain the side and George North will make a concussion-free return by way of a momentous 50th cap.
It is a particularly menacing looking backline with those Ireland players most under the gaze – Kearney, Fitzgerald and Earls – set to be tested to the limit.
From Rhys Webb to Leigh Halfpenny it is loaded with class and no little physicality.
With little form to draw on the initial impression is of a Welsh line-up loaded in the right areas and driven by a string-puller on top of his game in Dan Biggar.
And if Kearney and Earls are to make their mark on the wings, they are sure going to have to do it the hard way given the quality of opposition in North and Alex Cuthbert.
We were good in Wales, not so against the Scots in Dublin despite winning both. Making it three out of three would help but this is about performance, individual and collective.
Take Ireland but it may not be overly pretty.