With many rugby fans and pundits seeing Ian Madigan as a possible Lion, Saturday’s win over Biarritz was his last audition for the part. The Leinster back’s versatility is seen as a big on-tour advantage. Having already played at both outhalf and fullback this season, Saturday saw the 24-year-old step in at inside centre.
So far in his career, Madigan has started 46 games for Leinster. 36 of those have come at outhalf and 9 at fullback. Last Saturday was his first appearance in the 12 jersey. At U20 international level, Madigan actually had more starts at fullback (5) than at outhalf (4). During the Six Nations, he made brief appearances for Ireland at inside centre. It’s clear that outhalf is his best position, and that he can now be considered as good cover for fullback. Last season, the Demented Mole even suggested trying him at scrumhalf. He’s versatile, that much is certain.
So how did the experiment of playing Madigan at 12 go?
He had an uncharacteristically nervy start to the game, knocking on 2 of his first 3 touches. The first knock-on came as Leinster tried to send Madigan boshing into the Biarritz defence direct from lineout possession, clearly not a role he’s built for. Biarritz outhalf Barraque stopped him in this tracks and Madigan spilled the ball forward. Minutes later, another knock-on. This one came under very little pressure and with a 3-on-2 outside him. He was clearly aware of this, planning his next move before he’d even caught the pill. Not a great start.
Madigan’s first defensive involvement will be marked as a missed tackle, but came from a scrappy situation after Leinster over-threw at their own lineout. The screengrabs below show what happened. While it was an unusual situation, it shows the demands of defending in the 12 channel. Coaches everywhere preach the importance of not getting pierced in the middle of the pitch. While the blame here should be shared amongst a few players, Madigan will be annoyed not to have prevented the line-break.
From there, Madigan’s performance improved. In the next 5 minutes, he made two tackles on Baby and Traille, going in low on both occasions and halting their progress. It was exactly what Madigan needed, something to get him into the game. His first positive attacking contribution came after 25 minutes, taking a switch off Sexton and popping the ball inside to Nacewa. Madigan’s ease of handling was evident, highlighting the advantages of using him as an Aaron Mauger-style second five-eight.
Two of Biarritz’s first three kick-offs were aimed directly into the zone where Madigan was situated. The intention was to put Damien Traille directly up against Madigan for the high ball. The first time, the French centre got above his opposite number, nearly claiming the ball, before his team gave away a penalty. The clear sign that Biarritz intended to target Madigan was Traille slipping a sneaky little kick to the Leinster 12 as they got off the ground. BOD was clearly not happy!
On the second occasion, Rob Kearney recognised the ploy, sprinting forward and actually knocking Madigan over in order to claim the ball. It’s not a major thing, but worth watching if Madigan is to play at 12 again. At 5’11″, he’s not the tallest and could be targeted in a similar manner.
The remainder of Madigan’s half involved some effective clean-outs at ruck-time, and one gorgeous pass. With time up on the clock, Leinster quick-tapped a penalty. Sexton move it to Madigan, who looked up to see that Baby had shot out of BO’s defensive line. Most players would have either trucked it up or thrown a looping pass over Baby. But Madigan’s vision allowed him to fire a flat pass in behind Baby, straight to Nacewa on the wing. Leinster were over the gain line, Biarritz were scrambling and the passage ended with Jamie Heaslip scoring.
Madigan’s role as a second-five eight was really interesting to watch. While Gordon D’Arcy is certainly no battering ram, Madigan’s skills are more suited to a play-making role in the centre. All of Leinster’s backline possess good passing skills, but Madigan is the best passer in the country. The above was the most obvious example of the benefits of playing Madigan at 12. His passing and creativity open up even more possibilities for Leinster in wider areas.
Madigan’s second-half got off to a flyer, quite literally. As Biarritz attacked in the Leinster 22, Synaeghel knocked on and Madigan intercepted. He then showed exceptional pace to burst away and came up just 5 metres short, caught by Ngwenya. The American winger was sin-binned and Leinster added 3 points. That sheer pace is something we haven’t seen too much of in Madigan’s game, but it’s just another string to his bow.
His next two contributions were defensive. The first was an excellent tackle on a surging Thibault Dubarry. His hit was strong and actually forced a knock-on, which wasn’t noticed by referee Wayne Barnes. The next was another low tackle on Traille, bringing him to the deck.
With Sexton subbed off, Madigan moved to outhalf and taking over place-kicking duties on the 50 minute mark. He began by converting Nacewa’s try with ease. His form off the tee is excellent, and that continued on Saturday, with 3 from 3 in total.
Overall, Madigan’s first outing in the 12 jersey for Leinster was a positive one. While there were signs that he was slightly uncomfortable in the role at first, he grew into the game and managed to show off some of his skills. With Jonny Sexton still only 27, it’s something we may see more of in the future, possibly with the Irish national team. In terms of a Lions audition, Madigan showed glimpses of the skill set he can offer. Would you have him on the Lions squad or with Ireland this summer? Is there a future for Madigan at 12 alongside Sexton for Ireland? Let me know your views!
Madigan’s stats vs. Biarritz, from ESPNScrum.com:
Kick/pass/run: 0/13/6 Metres run: 102 Clean breaks: 1 Defenders beaten: 3 Tackles made/missed: 7/2