Ian Madigan cautions departing stars to 'pick the right club'

Leaving the familiar embrace of home, and the IRFU's rigidly-run professional programme, offers both risk and reward and Ian Madigan had tastes of both after leaving Leinster in 2016 for Bordeaux-Begles and then a longer stint with Bristol Bears.
Ian Madigan cautions departing stars to 'pick the right club'
Ian Madigan during an Ulster Rugby squad training session at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by Robyn McMurray for Ulster Rugby via Sportsfile

There are over a dozen Irish rugby players knocking about Premiership as it resumes tonight with the meeting of Harlequins and Sale. More again are dotted around France and the USA, with the odd one posted in Japan or New Zealand.

Leaving the familiar embrace of home, and the IRFU's rigidly-run professional programme, offers both risk and reward and Ian Madigan had tastes of both after leaving Leinster in 2016 for Bordeaux-Begles and then a longer stint with Bristol Bears.

The money was good and, while he experienced some good times on the field of play, his chapters on both sides of the Channel petered out disappointingly. Now back 'home' with Ulster, he has some words of advice for those looking to try their hand further afield.

“It's very important to pick the right club. You want to be going somewhere where there's a very good coach. Then you're looking at what senior players are there that you can learn from. For me going to Bordeaux, having Adam Ashley Cooper there, someone who has 100-odd caps for Australia, I'm going to learn a huge amount.

“I'd want to be careful too. You don't want to be going to a club where you could potentially be getting an absolute drumming every weekend. That's tough on you both physically and mentally. If you're 24 or 25, I'd want to go somewhere you could really compete with someone, learn from them and be in a rotation.”

Everyone is different. Madigan left with 30 Ireland caps in his bag and multiple medals and appearances stacked up for Leinster. He was 27, a skillful ten who could play 15 that had filled Jonathan Sexton's boots brilliantly at times.

That opened doors and it was long before Covid-19 thinned the waters.

The Irish contingent still in England covers all types: from Brian Byrne who is looking to nail down his first shirt in the pro game at Bristol Bears to London Irish's Sean O'Brien who has been there, done that and worn blue, green and red jerseys with distinction for more than a decade.

For the likes of a Gareth Steenson at Exeter, the dye has been cast. England has been their canvas for too long now to change. For many though the hope is that their route will prove to be circular with the end result a provincial berth and maybe a test call-up.

“I don't look back with any regrets,” says Madigan. “I made the decision to go to Bordeaux. It didn't quite work out but if I'd made the decision again, I'd have gone with it. I weighed it up, I talked to the people whose advice I valued and ultimately I made the decision and I'll stand by that.

“I still learnt a huge amount from it. The move to Bristol, it didn't finish great but I'm still very proud of what we achieved as a team and what I achieved personally over that three years. There was always an ambition to come back home.

“I like to think I train hard anyway but once I'd signed (for Ulster), it was like I was finding an extra 10-15% in sessions purely because that goal was motivating me so strongly, that motivation of getting into the team here and then into Ireland camps.”

The opportunity to join Bordeaux presented itself long before serious talk brewed about a possible switch to Munster four years ago but Madigan's take on the possibility of playing for an Irish side other than his native Leinster at the time was clear.

It would be “tough”, he admitted then.

People change, sport changes. Madigan describes himself as a purist in that sense but feels more comfortable with the move to Belfast now that he hasn't made it directly from Dublin. There is also the fact that the demarcation lines between the provinces has blurred so much now even if it is Leinster players who are moving about more than most.

“My journey is what it has been but I've arrived here now and, while I'm not from Ulster or Belfast, I've been made to feel welcome and I can guarantee you that when I pull on that white shirt I'll be giving it absolutely everything. That's something that really excites me.”

Some have returned to these shores better for the time away. Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings and Mike Ross are three that spring to mind. Even Jonathan Sexton would say that his difficult time at Racing 92 was a period of personal growth in terms of his career.

Madigan comes back a more thoughtful type of player. The game has changed. You can't play as flat to the line as he once did and his ability in exiting his own 22 is one way he believes himself to be better now.

“I've had six more years of lifting weights four or five times a week so I'm a lot stronger,” he reasons, “so better defensively and hopefully we'll see that coming through once the games begin.”

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