Mental approach key for Ian Madigan

It seems as though there is no end to Ian Madigan’s talents.

An out-half by trade, he expanded his remit to include first-centre and full-back before a summer in which he would dabble in the business of scrum-halfing and ended with the 26-year old serving as cover to Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan in Ireland’s World Cup squad.

Such versatility is commonplace in other countries, Australia being particularly au fait with the notion of players operating under different department headings, but Madigan’s many hats have been quite the story here at provincial, and now national, level.

All of which has tended to overshadow the gifts he brings to the table. An inventive playmaker, he shone at 10 for Leinster at the back end of the 2012/13 campaign when the soon-to-depart Jonathan Sexton was out injured.

Doubts have always been expressed about his ability to manage a game — something he took serious umbrage with in a radio interview last month — but no-one has questioned his place-kicking ability throughout all the debates about his optimum position.

His statistics are consistently sky-high. Richie Murphy, Leinster and Ireland’s kicking coach, has said there is no-one better anywhere from inside 45m range and it is that reliability as much as his versatility which has earned him the back-up role to Sexton over Ulster’s Paddy Jackson.

Like Sexton, Madigan has placed great faith in Murphy, who has helped him establish a failsafe technique built to withstand extreme weather and pressure. Enda McNulty, the former Armagh footballer and mental coach, has been the other near-constant.

“Once I had that technique in place it was just all about getting the practice in, feeling comfortable doing it in training and then in matches,” said Madigan last month. “The other component was mentally being on the right side of it. You often hear golfers talk about the work that they do mentally.

“You see Jason Day when he won the PGA and how he visualised every shot before he hits it. There is a massive similarity with goal-kicking and playing golf shots under pressure. What I have done over the last 10 years is work with Enda very closely and I feel now that over the last two or three seasons I have been in a strong position mentally to kick under pressure.”

Mental approach key for Ian Madigan

The importance of goal-kicking is emphasised in a World Cup. Since 1987, 11 finals have produced just 15 tries. Take away the four scored in that inaugural tournament 28 years ago and the ratio slumps to less than one touchdown per decider.

In 2003, Johnny Wilkinson scored 62 of the 72 points England managed from the quarter-final on, including the winning drop-goal, while Stephen Donald demonstrated the importance of having solid back-up in that department four years ago when New Zealand squeaked home.

It may well be that Madigan finds himself standing over a critical kick at some point in the next six or so weeks and, if he does, he will hope to emulate Ronan O’Gara, the man who came to personify goal-kicking under pressure with Ireland and with Munster.

“Rog was always the one I looked up to. He was the master of goal-kicking. He was consistently at the top of the stats and that was kicking in the old Lansdowne Road which had the toughest wind and down in Thomond Park which is tough as well.

“Most goal-kickers have a shape that you can rely on, like a golfer who can hit a draw or hit a fade. A lot of them only have one and they rely on that. He was like Tiger Woods. He could kick six different shapes on the ball.”

O’Gara has spoken and written before about how his kicking underwent seismic changes as his career wound on and Madigan made some fundamental alterations to his own style and structures in his formative years as a professional.

A decision to change the tee he used two years after leaving Blackrock College was foremost among them. He dispensed with the version that stood the ball up relatively straight or leaning forward slightly for the telescopic model that sits the ball’s body on top rugby league style.

Mental approach key for Ian Madigan

Madigan simply found that it suited his technique more.

Any changes since have been tweaks rather than major projects.

The challenge for kickers is to adhere to those routines time after time and especially when the stakes are highest. None are infallible, as Sexton’s late miss against New Zealand in 2013 and Madigan’s against Scotland in the Six Nations last March would attest.

The first of those was painfully costly, the other not so, but Sexton has spoken since about the odd, random thoughts that can flit though his mind at such critical moments, whether it be a movie he recently watched or a conversation he had with a friend.

“I wouldn’t find that those thoughts would come into my head,” said Madigan. “I have a set routine that probably has up to 30 parts in it and I do the majority of them sub-consciously. Within that technique there would be maybe two or three things that I would be focusing on in matches.

“They are the only thoughts that go through my head.

“That’s something that has been good to me. There is no doubt in a big game that you are thinking ‘this kick has to go over’ That thought is going to go through your head, but I wouldn’t be thinking I am going to have goats cheese on my pizza after this match or anything like that.”

Goal-kicking remains a curiously individualist phenomenon in a game that prizes the collective effort. Penalty-takers in football may experience something similar, but not multiple times in each game, week after unending week.

Kicks at goal can arm players with a cloak of infallibility that permeates the rest of their game, but how many times have we seen out-halves, in particular, crumble or slink into a shell on the back of one or more misguided efforts at the sticks?

Mental approach key for Ian Madigan

“I have talked before about how goal-kicking can give other parts of your game massive confidence, but it is very important when you are missing kicks that it doesn’t affect your game. It’s just something that I have worked on with the kicking coach and psychologist.

“Enda is great at getting you to focus on your next job so if you do miss an easy kick you are not saying to yourself that you have to do something really special to cancel it out. You are telling yourself to execute a simple pass or tackle and before you know it you have forgotten about it.”

Whatever happens in England this next two months, the odds are that the most meaningful contributions will be made not through sleight of hand or force of hit but by the graceful yet metronomic movement of someone’s boot and a ball dissecting two posts.

Or by a ball flying wide or dropping short.

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