With Ireland having dispatched the durable Georgians with a workmanlike seven-try rout Sunday, attention now turns to southern hemisphere giants Australia, who visit the Aviva on Saturday. The men in green have already enjoyed a productive autumn by their own standards, by virtue of last week’s fantastic victory over the mighty Springboks, and now complemented by a venerable win over the feisty Georgians. Two wins out of three may have been the pre-series benchmark for the upwardly mobile Irish, but there is little doubt that having vanquished their first two opponents in the Guinness series, Ireland’s perfectionist coach Joe Schmidt will want to make it a clean sweep. Such aspirations may have seemed supremely optimistic a couple of weeks ago, but following the superb win over a star-studded South African side, there is every reason to believe that Schmidt’s men are on course to complete an unlikely treble.
With the tricky Georgia fixture now safely negotiated, Ireland’s Kiwi coach must consider which personnel will take the field against the battered Aussies, still smarting from Saturday night’s reverse against the muscular French in Paris. While there is every reason to believe that Ireland’s head coach will largely persist with the same XV that so impressively out-thought the South Africans, there are compelling reasons to make at least one fundamental change.
Leinster’s Ian Madigan has been in fine form thus far in the Guinness series. His cameo appearance from the bench against the Springboks helped close out the game at a time when the encounter was still in the balance. Not for the first time, the former Blackrock College pupil demonstrated a steely composure in the heat of battle. Even more impressively, the Leinster fly-half had a thoroughly decent game yesterday afternoon against the supremely physical Georgians, expertly pulling the strings at halfback. As well as landing eight kicks (five conversions to supplement his three first half penalties), Madigan also showed the creativity that has been so abundant at the RDS in recent seasons. Several times during the match, the fly-half made incisive and penetrating runs, opening up space for his outside backs. What impressed was not so much Madigan’s blistering pace, but his overall tactical awareness and game management; two attributes that have become increasingly evident in his game.
There is absolutely no chance that Schmidt will dispense with the talismanic Jonny Sexton for Saturday’s crunch encounter, but there remains a compelling case for Madigan’s inclusion. Assuming that Jared Payne doesn’t shake off the troublesome foot injury he sustained against the Springboks, it is widely assumed that Schmidt will restore veteran Gordon D’Arcy in the centre, with rookie Robbie Henshaw returning to his favoured position of outside centre. While such a course of action appears entirely logical, an alternative combination could see Madigan assume the number twelve jersey, and the indomitable D’Arcy switching to outside centre. D’Arcy is no stranger to the pivotal position vacated by the retired Brian O’Driscoll, and the Wexford native has performed the role with distinction for province and country. But it’s the prospect of Madigan at inside centre that genuinely excites.
Such a selection would undoubtedly be a curveball, but that is precisely the reason why the idea is so attractive. The Aussies won’t see it coming. With Madigan shifted out to inside centre, a whole new world of creative possibilities is opened up. The Leinster utility back has the potential to carve open the impenetrable Wallaby defence, while simultaneously taking the heat off Sexton at fly-half. As well as providing the impetus and spark that can ignite Ireland’s attacking game, Madigan’s inclusion would provide an additional kicking option that has limitless possibilities in terms of field-position and territory. In addition, the prodigious Madigan has the talent to complement D’Arcy in the centre. Veteran D’Arcy is a wonderful defender who is not afraid of mucking in at the breakdown, while his Leinster team mate on the other hand, has the guile and vision to unlock the tightest of defences.
Together they have the makings of a lethal centre partnership. And it’s not as if the Leinster flyer is unaccustomed to the role. Madigan regularly occupies the number twelve jersey at Leinster, and there is no doubt that his skillset lends itself to the demands of the position. After all, it’s not uncommon for fly-halves to step out to inside centre, as the two roles are essentially inter-changeable (first and second five-eighths as they’re called in New Zealand). For a long time, pundits have been questioning how Ireland can solve the conundrum of having two such wonderfully gifted fly-halves in their squad. Perhaps the solution is simpler than many have envisaged: play them both together.
Although still adapting to the demands of new coach Michael Cheika, the Wallabies remain a superb rugby team, and Ireland will need an intelligent and thoughtful game plan to prosper. Selecting Ian Madigan in the centre may just provide the inspiration for the hosts to complete their clean sweep this autumn. For all the plaudits received to date, there is a feeling that Ireland need something extra to take their game to the next level, and the mercurial Madigan might be the man to provide it.
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