Ulster first but Ireland return looms large in Ian Madigan's thinking

“It's my number one goal to play for Ireland.”
Ulster first but Ireland return looms large in Ian Madigan's thinking
Ian Madigan during an Ulster Rugby squad training session at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by Robyn McMurray for Ulster Rugby via Sportsfile

Ian Madigan's first priority is to claim a toehold in Ulster's matchday squad but the talented out-half admits that his overarching ambition on returning to Ireland after stints in France and England is to wear the green jersey again.

Now 31, Madigan left Leinster in 2016 for a new challenge with Bordeaux-Begles. Three years with Bristol Bears followed. Neither postings were ultimately successful but he is back under the eye of the IRFU and head coach Andy Farrell now since landing in Belfast and eager to return to the test scene.

Farrell spoke positively about the Dubliner when asked about him in a media briefing last week. With 30 caps on his resumé – though none this last four years - he has more experience in the international arena than any of the others looking to poach the No.10 off Jonathan Sexton's back.

“It was a serious boost for Andy Farrell to give me a shout out given I haven't played a whole lot in the last 12 months,” he said on Tuesday evening. “For me personally, coming back and being able to play for one of the Irish provinces and playing for Ireland as one of my main goals has really focused me with my training and given me something to aim at.

“I'm under no illusions that I have to really prove myself and that starts here with Ulster. There's some good quality guys here in Billy [Burns] and Bill [Johnston], and even Mike Lowry if he plays ten or 15. So it starts here.”

He knows that the process promises to be a gradual one and that there are no guarantees given the candidacies of men like Burns in Belfast, Ross Byrne at Leinster, Jack Carty in Connacht, as well as Munster's Joey Carbery who will hopefully shake off his injury issues soon.

“It's something that really excites me,” he said of this new challenge with Ulster and, possibly, beyond. 

It's my number one goal to play for Ireland.”

The word is that he has settled in well with some glowing references emanating from training and he has found the integration process much easier than in France where he was learning a new language on top of new systems and structures and play calls while learning who everybody was.

“Bristol would have been a step closer to what I was used to in Leinster and what I have experienced so far in Ulster.

“What's been great here is that I know a huge amount of guys either from playing or training with them in Irish camp or playing against them when I was playing with Leinster or Bordeaux.

“I felt after two or three days here that I had been here six months so it was a very easy transition and one that I have really enjoyed so far.”

Madigan was on top dollar during his years abroad but the end result from a rugby point of view was a frustrating one as he found minutes more limited and time passing him by. His last season in Bristol was especially sedate but the pandemic has left everybody on standby for months now.

“A lot of players are disadvantaged in that they haven't played much in the last six months. The fact I wasn't playing much with Bristol doesn't hamper me because everyone is in the same boat really. It has been great joining a new environment and new coaches.”

He feels in what may be the best physical condition of his career and seems to have struck a chord with Ulster backs and attack coach Dwayne Peel whose creativity and open communication chime with a player who was once so renowned for his vision and skills.

“On the flip side then you've got Jared [Payne] who is a fantastic defence coach. He's got a different philosophy to what I'm used to. He loves to see his defence get broken down and the attack breaking through and the guys making the mistakes learning from it.

“It's a refreshing way of being a defence coach because every day you're not just on an attack-focused day or a defence-focused day. Every day we want good attack and good defence so you are nearly getting double sessions in each day which is really positive.”

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox