As Ireland bore down on France in the Rugby World Cup last year, the general opinion – and it was almost impossible to find a dissenting voice – was that it would be less a contest than a triumphal procession.
Although they were yet to scale the heights of their Six Nations form, Joe Schmidt’s team had dispatched of Canada, Romania and Italy in what seemed to be a carefully calculated ascent to their peak. In so doing they established a clear distinction with the travails of Eddie O’Sullivan’s 2007 squad who had carried a similar weight of expectation on their shoulders.
But when Jonny Sexton lay prone on the Millennium Stadium turf after just 25 minutes of the pivotal clash, the public mood was like that which suffused the country when Goran Stavrevski of Macedonia denied Mick McCarthy’s ambitious and capable Irish side of automatic qualification to Euro 2000. The dangerous ecstasy engendered by Ireland’s potential quickly turned to gnawing apprehension.
Proceedings up to the point of Sexton’s injury and beyond were attritional. Players on both sides were like men possessed as their every hit reverberated throughout the pubs and cafés of their respective homelands. Then, with the game poised at 6-6, Sexton’s withdrawal seemed to be the sucker punch.
Step forward Ian Madigan.
Despite making his debut at the tail-end of Declan Kidney’s tenure and having featured in every Irish squad for which he has been available since, Madigan was thrust into the spotlight like never before. Within three minutes of his introduction, he had punted Ireland into the lead and would continue to conduct matters with his customary panache throughout the evening. As Madigan steered his country to a famous 24-9 victory, the men and women of Ireland exalted a new hero, swooning as triumphant tears streamed down his face. It was the finest moment of his career.
At the RDS last week, the scenes that followed Leinster’s victory over Ulster didn’t quite compare to those that greeted the final whistle at the Millenium Stadium. However, it was another emotional night for Madigan as he applauded the faithful Leinster following. With 146 appearances since 2009, Madigan had been a key component in the province’s domination of Europe during the Joe Schmidt-era.
Nevertheless, although a number of players embraced him, for the most part Ian Madigan’s final game at Leinster HQ largely went unnoticed. With a career that began across the road at Old Belvedere and had ventured as far as Lansdowne Road, Madigan sensed the magnitude of his impending move: the Dublin boy was saying goodbye to his home.
While there remained some optimism that Schmidt may abscond from the IRFU’s policy of favouring Irish-based players this week, there was no great surprise when Madigan was omitted from the touring party to South Africa. Jonny Sexton’s French adventure effectively made Schmidt’s mind up as to whether such players could be involved in his plans. Ultimately, Schmidt’s frustrations stemmed from his inability to exercise sufficient control over Sexton’s playing time at Racing Metro. Therefore, without an IRFU-mandated rest, how could he expect to get the best out of a player hurled straight back into Top 14 action upon returning to his club?
International ambition aside, Madigan’s move to Union Bordeaux-Bègles (UBB) makes perfect sense. At just 27 years of age, he is in the prime of his career. While there are the obvious financial incentives, crucially it is Madigan’s own desire to make the most of his considerable ability that has driven him towards this opportunity. It would have been an easy decision to remain at home.
Leinster would appear to be primed for more silverware in forthcoming seasons: the academy conveyor shows no signs of abating while the addition of Robbie Henshaw also bodes well for the future. Some would even argue that with Sexton’s tenure for both club and country nearing an end, Madigan should be charged with leading the next generation for both club and country. But he is not prepared to take any more chances. Like any quality out-half, he is taking the game by the scruff of the neck and grabbing his opportunity.
It seems somewhat ironic that it is his natural footballing ability that has hindered Madigan’s progression most. Notwithstanding his undoubted talent, Madigan’s capacity to cover a variety of positions became his primary attribute. At one point, the youngster was Sexton’s nailed-on replacement at Leinster before Jimmy Gopperth’s performances pushed him inside. He has also appeared at full-back and provided extra cover for Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan during the World Cup.
John O’Shea was faced with a similar dilemma at Manchester United some years ago. Despite winning several major trophies during his time at Old Trafford, the addition of Phil Jones sounded the death-knell for his first team ambitions. After 11 seasons at Old Trafford, the right-back/left-back/centre-half/centre-midfielder became resigned to seeking a consistent challenge elsewhere. While Sunderland were never going to set the Premier League alight, O’Shea racked up 153 appearances in five campaigns on Wearside. And on June 13 he will lead the Republic of Ireland out against Sweden in Paris.
Rather than bemoan Madigan’s departure, the out-half should be praised for his determination to better himself. The French will undoubtedly appreciate his attacking flair from his preferred position. They will also admire his bravery to uproot and ply his trade beyond the shadows of the RDS and the Aviva. While Madigan’s exit will be keenly felt in the short-term, ultimately there is a long-term gain to be considered.
At Leinster, the likes of Cathal Marsh and Ross Byrne will be catapulted into first team action while Paddy Jackson can finally avail of the chance so many feel he deserves on the Test stage. Madigan will return in time. When he does so, he will be closer to the player that so many believe he can become.
Maybe then we’ll have that triumphal procession at the World Cup…