Leinster’s fine unbeaten run was ended last Friday night by a feisty Ospreys team. While the Neath-Swansea outfit were clearly the more powerful team in the second half – aided by the inclusion of their confidence-charged Welsh Grand Slammers – there were a couple of performances worthy of further discussion from the Leinster midfield backs.
Fergus McFadden had a big performance after what must have been a frustrating Six Nations for him: he had an absolute beaut of a touch-finder [which topped out at a genuine 70m gain], went 6/8 from the placed ball, including a monster penalty from inside his own half, and had a number of sharp half-breaks.
Outhalf Ian Madigan celebrated his twenty-third birthday in style with an opportunist try, his eighth of the season. Of players contracted to the four Irish provinces, Madigan trails just Simon Zebo [who has nine] for tries scored this season, a remarkable record for an outhalf. At Pro 12 level, he’s an enormous breaking threat for a No10 – quick off the mark, extremely well-balanced and surprisingly physical. For most aficionados, however, it’s not the try-scoring that is the highlight of Madigan’s game: it’s the passing.
He’s as good a passer as The Mole has seen in Irish rugby, capable of the most challenging of passes off either hand, passes that are well outside the remit of most professionals. It’s more than just practice; it’s a real gift. The best way to sum up the extent of the talent?
In Irish rugby, Ian Madigan is to passing as Ronan O’Gara is to kicking.
No doubt that’ll get someone hot under the collar! I’m not saying that Madigan is a better outhalf, or that he’s going to be a better outhalf, or that he’s ahead of ROG or behind ROG or nowhere near ROG at the same age … merely that in terms of those particular aspects of their respective games, the talent levels are comparable. Again, it’s not about accomplishments, or the tangible rewards that come from goal-kicking: it’s about things like touch, precision, imagination and intention. Those players can do things with the ball from the outhalf position that the vast majority of their contemporaries simply can’t do.
True, Madigan had a couple of unusually dodgy balls that hit the deck against the Ospreys, but they were an oddity, perhaps attributable to the three week gap since the last game. Everybody has off-days. For the most part he has had an extremely good season, stepping into the gap left by the most unfortunate forced retirement of Ian McKinley and the horrendous injury suffered by Mat Berquist.
The Irish Giteau
When Madigan is on song, he reminds The Mole of an Irish Matt Giteau. It stems from the physical similarities, obviously, but extends to the cocksure strut of how them play the outhalf position, and the obvious talent on display … as well as the high-risk nature of their style. Again, just like the comparison with O’Gara, this isn’t to say that Madigan is as good as Giteau, or that he’s ever going to be as good as Giteau, but in the Mole’s eyes there are definite similarities between the players.
The Real Giteau … At Scrumhalf?
Anybody who followed the career of Giteau will be aware that he started a number of games for John Connolly’s Wallabies at scrum-half during 2006 and 2007. While he obviously didn’t make a permanent switch to the position, The Mole thinks it fair to say that the experiment was a qualified success: Gits generally performed well [both in his duties as a scrum-half and in a more general sense] and he was able to fill a gap for Australia in a vital position.
Scrum-half is the real hinge of the team, the link between backs and forwards. Beyond selecting a player capable of dealing with the various position-specific tasks inherent to the role, finding a quality player who can read the game, make the right decisions and ask questions of the opposition defence is a real trump card for a coach. Giteau had played a significant amount of schoolboy rugby at halfback, and Connolly made the brave call to give him a shot. With a quality backline that included Stephen ‘Bernie’ Larkham, Stirling Mortlock, Lote Tuiquiri and Chris ‘Latho’ Latham, the Wallabies were well served at outhalf, centre and fullback, but with George Gregan’s form on the wane, they were shallow at scrum-half by 2006. Gregan had been a fixture in the Wallaby No9 jersey since 1994: any time you have a world class player in situ, those players beneath him in the depth chart are going to suffer, and this situation was little different. Sam Cordingley was a decent player, but beyond him the cupboard ran very bare. Josh Valentine? Anyone? Bueller?
At international level, Giteau had always been seen as an outhalf or a centre; while Connolly’s selection didn’t come out of the blue entirely – as mentioned above, Giteau’s background as a scrumhalf had had Aussie commentators discussing the move previously – it was still a risky and surprising call. Did Connolly see it as a long term investment, a potential positional switch or a way to get his best players on the pitch at the same time? It’s difficult to tell. Cordingley was ruled out of the tour due to injury and Giteau’s positional switch was pushed forward.
Whatever the thinking behind it, Gits played four games in a row in the Northern hemisphere tour of November 2006, and a further couple against the touring Welsh in early summer 2007 before George Gregan was recalled to the side. While recalling a 34-year old for his thirteenth season of international rugby might seem like a sign that the Giteau experiment was a disaster, that doesn’t seem to be the case: Green and Gold Rugby, the leading internet authority on all things Aussie rugby, rate Giteau as the third best Australian scrum-half of the decade – behind Gregan and Genia, but ahead of Whitaker and Burgess. World Cup-winning Aussie scrumhalf and captain Nick Farr-Jones thought that it’d be a pretty good idea too.
While The Mole has stressed the obvious similarities with Ian Madigan, it’s only fair to point out the differences. Gits played a fair bit of his schoolboy rugby in the No9 jersey and was thus very familiar with the position, while Madigan has – to the extent of The Mole’s knowledge – been an outhalf or fullback for his entire career.
As an outhalf, much is made of Madigan’s alleged inability to kick goals, as he’s no better than Leinster’s fourth-choice place-kicker. That is put somewhat in context by the fact that those players preferred to him on goal-kicking duty in Leinster are three of the Pro 12’s top nine marksmen, with Fergus McFadden leading the league with an 89% success rate and Jonny Sexton in third place with an 87% success rate. Rugby is a team game, and if there are people in the team who are better than you at something like goal-kicking, and if they’re longer established in the role, then it makes sense that they keep the job rather than turn it over just to prove whether or not somebody else can do it. There are still games at stake!
However, with a pass as sharp as that, The Mole sees the potential to develop Madigan as a French-style halfback, a player who can play either scrum-half or outhalf … think of the likes of Freddie Michalak, Morgan Parra or Jean-Baptiste Élissalde. Having coached in France, Joe Schmidt would be less averse to the idea than any other Irish coach.
Maybe it wouldn’t work. Maybe Madigan would take too much out of the ball, or insist on seeing himself as the primary decision-maker in what is a relatively unsighted position. Maybe he couldn’t adjust to being asked to go from ruck-to-ruck, doing the simple things well.
On the other hand, how does anybody really know how it goes unless it’s tried? Madigan has a great pass, a sharp break, a competent kicking game and is a decent tackler, so all the basics are there. The versatility of having one halfback on the bench instead of two has its own strongpoints, especially at international level. The selection of Madigan on the bench would be a daring move, but the reasoning behind it is actually pragmatic enough. Having somebody on the bench who can cover No9, No10 and No15 would allow you the luxury of a 5/2 split … which in turn would mean that you could field an entire replacement front row.
The Second Most Important Position In The Squad
The recent debacle in Twickenham revealed that Ireland are most f*cked when the first-choice tighthead is lost to injury. No other positional loss would have had that level of impact, even a first-choice goal-kicker [if you checked the Rabo 12 link above, you’ll have seen that the best three place-kickers in the league were all in the Irish matchday squad for the game in Twickenham]. Ireland currently do not have a prop capable of playing both sides of the scrum at international level. Pretending that we do, or simply hoping the problem will go away, is not going to do the job.
Having a specialist tighthead on the bench when we don’t have a particularly good second-place tighthead behind Mike Ross might seem like over-egging the pudding. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. One thing is for sure: every scrum over the next year is going to have a serious cut off the Irish scrum. Once there’s blood in the water, once there’s evidence of weakness, teams will go out to try and blast that scrum to pieces.
Of course, opting for a single halfback on the bench means that there’s no room for O’Gara. At this stage of his career, ROG might welcome the thought of sitting out a three -test tour of New Zealand with a tired Irish squad and a jaded coaching ticket. He’s got young kids, has fallen to second choice in the pecking order and, at 35, doesn’t have a huge amount of international rugby ahead of him.
There’s no doubt that something might happen between now and the announcement of the touring part that would make him undroppable, and he has been in fine form for Munster. As it stands however, his presence in the squad isn’t achieving a whole lot. As Peter O’Reilly wrote in the Sunday Times, we’ve seen “enough of moving Sexton to 12 to mollify O’Gara”. It was a tactic that bore very little fruit throughout the Six Nations, and has f*ck-all of a future.