Leinster righted a number of the wrongs from their St Stephen’s Day disaster in Thomond Park two evenings ago and, in terms of individual redemptive tales, there were few more obvious candidates than Ian Madigan.
Pegged as Ireland’s likely starter at 10 for the Six Nations opener against Italy when news of Jonathan Sexton’s concussion issues emerged, Madigan was only parachuted back into the out-half slot in time for that Munster match. It was just his second start of the campaign in the pivotal position held mostly by Jimmy Gopperth and he was ultimately outshone by Ian Keatley on a night when the visiting pack was bullied by their opponents on the way to a comfortable home victory.
Madigan fared much better this time when the presence of Paddy Jackson in the opposing ranks once again provided a head-to-head narrative for the media and spectators, including Joe Schmidt.
It fell to Leo Cullen to dissect Madigan’s game afterwards and the Leinster forwards coach was fulsome in his praise for how the man more accustomed to life in the centre lately controlled the game and directed traffic.
Game management is something Madigan’s critics have not been convinced by in the past, and it is something that only ever comes with game experience, but the 25-year-old has always offered something different to your average Irish 10. That was in evidence here when his drilled grubber kick across the Ulster 22 late on almost worked a try for Gopperth and also in the first half when a similar swing of the foot at a restart almost allowed Ulster break deep into Leinster territory.
Win some, lose some.
Classic Madigan, basically, and never more so than three minutes after the interval when he tapped a quick penalty to himself from five metres out and barrelled over the Ulster line for the try (and conversion) that put the home side 10 points clear.
“Ballsy” was the word Cullen used to describe that — even if he fancied his grunts to drive over anyway — and it’s an approach that the former Leinster captain backed when asked if perhaps Madigan was still prone to being too far outside the box at times.
“But look at the way he takes his try at the start of the second half. When it comes off, it’s brilliant, when it doesn’t, it’s terrible. But Mads has no problem making those decisions. He’s brave and at times he can be a bit of a maverick, for sure.
“But he is such a quality player and he is working his ass off for the team and to be a better player himself,” added Cullen. “As long as you get that from your players, that is all you can ask for.”
For Jackson, this was only a ninth appearance in an injury-hit season — and his first alongside Ruan Pienaar, who has himself been laid up — and he was the more prominent of the 10s in a first half which Ulster bossed but finished 9-6 adrift.
The second period was less rewarding for player and province with Wiehahn Herbst’s 50th-minute try, coming just before Dan Tuohy’s 10 minutes in the bin expired, a rare shaft of light in a segment that ended with Jack Conan claiming a second Leinster try.
“First half we were playing pretty well,” said Ulster coach Neil Doak. “Second half, I would need to look at in a little more detail with regards to the opportunities Jacko had. When you have that eight-point buffer... Mads doesn’t need to play too much rugby.
“They pushed us to the edge a couple of times, put the ball behind us and that’s how you kill games off. When you have that buffer you don’t need to chase it, just do the simple stuff well: carry hard, good setpiece, play to the corners and then just squeeze.”
Simple it may have been but it went a long way to reestablishing Madigan’s credentials as Ireland’s go-to man ahead of the visit to Rome in early February, even if Jackson boasts more experience in the pocket at that level than either him or Keatley.
Schmidt will be hoping all three can deliver more food for thought in the course of next week’s Pro12 weekend and the two rounds of Rugby Champions Cup that follow. Ireland’s Six Nations defence depends on it.
LEINSTER: Z Kirchner; F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, G D’Arcy, D Kearney; I Madigan, I Boss; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; J Conan, J Murphy, J Heaslip.
Replacements: J van der Flier for Heaslip (28); S Cronin for Strauss, T Furlong for Ross (both 56); K Douglas for McCarthy (61); J Gopperth for Kirchner (66); L McGrath for Boss (69); M Bent for McGrath (72); B Te’o for D’Arcy (77).
ULSTER: P Nelson; T Bowe, D Cave, S Olding, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best, W Herbst; D Tuohy, F van der Merwe; R Diack, C Ross, R Wilson.
Replacements: L Marshall for Bowe (49); S Reidy for Ross (65); A Warwick for Black, B Ross for Herbst, A O’Connor for van der Merwe (all 69); R Herring for Best, P Marshall for Pienaar (both 75).
Referee: M Mitrea (Italy).