There are certain sportspeople who may not have the fully stocked trophy cabinet of their peers, or perhaps they haven't reached their full potential. However, they have something special that allows them to live fondly in the memories of fans. Their flair, their look, and their ability to draw a loud collective breath from the crowd, afford them a singular cult status. Their careers are romanticised in our minds, and looking back on the highlights and tries from a certain period of their career, brings with it a wave of nostalgia as well.
Some of you may have heard of the ‘The Streets Won’t Forget’ video series on YouTube. For those of you not privy, it is a highlight series of such cult footballers. It covers the likes of Able Taarabt at QPR and Ben Arfa at Newcastle. Players who dazzled but for a number of reasons never reached greater heights.
This series is applying the concept to rugby players. We begin with Ian Madigan at Leinster.
The making of Mad Dog
His attacking nature, flat passing, and an eye for the line made Ian Madigan a fan favourite at the RDS in the early to mid 2010’s. His eclectic haircuts often toed a fine line between cool and ridiculous, and his supporters could often count on him to conjure up a play that would get them off their feet. Whether this was a lightning-fast break set up by a powerful hand off and step, or a clutch try or goal kick, it didn't matter, Madigan had a bag full of tricks.
He made his Leinster debut in the Magners League in 2009 against the Dragons. He played nine minutes. These minutes gradually grew year on year, and in the 2012-13 season he not only became a regular fixture but also a standout and star at the RDS. His highlights from this season included a 28 point haul against Wasps in the Challenge Cup and a 27 point haul vs Glasgow in the Pro 12 where his flair and risky style were on full display.
In total, Madigan won 147 caps for Leinster over eight seasons, scoring 827 points. His trophy cabinet was also stacked with two league trophies, two Heineken Cups, and the 2013 Challenge Cup.
In terms of his playing style, he was and still is an attack-minded player with a rocket arm that could throw crisp flat passes that sliced open defences. His nickname 'Mad dog' not only worked as a play on words but also worked as a reminder of how he played the game on the edge. Sometimes this style was to his detriment, but one thing is certain that he was never boring.
His strength and step close to the line was also a standout feature of his game and lead to important tries such as the winner against Glasgow above, the winner against Ulster below, and a neat score vs Argentina in 2014.
Of course, there were tough days for Ian Madigan in blue. Most fans, and probably Madigan himself, believed he was a shoe-in as Sexton’s replacement when the Leinster no. 1 left for Racing Metro in 2013. Even if Sexton was a monumental loss, there was a small piece of joy deep inside Leinster fans who wanted to see a more mercurial player given the reigns.
However, it was the newcomer Jimmy Gopperth, who was more in the mould of the 'steady' outhalf like Sexton who took over the 10 slot in Matt O’Connor’s side. Madigan to his credit persevered and found success outside Gopperth at 12.
But then came the 2014 Champions Cup semi-final against Toulon, when In extra-time, with the score at 18-15 Leinster had a four on three overlap out wide. Instead of trusting the tried and tested method of draw and give, Madigan went for the miracle pass which was duly picked off by Bryan Habana.
He described it as his toughest day on the field:
“That was the toughest setback I have had. That hurt. It was off the back of a very good year that I really enjoyed. I felt I clicked with what Matt O’Connor wanted from me. I felt my opinion was really valued in the team and I was enjoying playing in the centre.
“It wasn’t like we could bounce back the following week. The season was really over, we were scrapping to finish fourth place in the league.
“It wasn’t like I was 21 and I could just dust it off. That I would be alright. You’re questioning yourself - am I good enough to play professionally at the top level?”
With the return of Jonny Sexton to Leinster, and the emergence of Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne, Madigan set sail for Bordeaux. No Leinster supporter has begrudged him any success he has had since leaving, having given everything for the jersey and left fond memories for the fans. A stint at Bristol followed, and he now finds himself at home in Ulster.
The setbacks he has suffered throughout his career along with years spent practicing with the kicking, clearly helped in developing a clutch gene when handed the kicking tee with a game on the line. His signature curling ball flight paid huge dividends throughout his career, most notably in the last play winners below.
— Murray Kinsella (@Murray_Kinsella) March 10, 2019
Edinburgh 19-22 ULSTER.
Ian Madigan WINS the game for Ulster with a penalty from the half-way line!
Ulster will meet Leinster in the final!
It's LIVE now on eir sport 1!#EDIvULS #GuinnessPRO14 pic.twitter.com/hMqoU2ZI9X
— eir Sport (@eirSport) September 5, 2020
Prior to his professional life, he enjoyed a tumultuous schools career, which saw him lift the Junior Cup in 2004 for Blackrock College, and line out for the seniors at 15 years of age. However, it also famously miss a last minute penalty against Kilkenny in 2007.
Speaking to the Irish Times, Ian Madigan said of his schools days,
“So for sixth year I gave it absolutely everything I had. I probably put too much pressure on myself and didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have. It was disappointing to miss that kick against Kilkenny.
"It did cross my mind that maybe rugby wasn’t for me. But I had great people around me like my dad and brother. They just picked me back up.”
These experiences clearly stood to him, and added to his mental fortitude.
Following his schoolboy days he played for the Ireland u20s alongside the likes of Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, Jack McGrath, Rhys Ruddock, and the late Nevin Spence. The side missed lost out on points difference to champions France in that year's U20s Six Nations.
He won 31 senior caps for Ireland, with the high point of course being that game against France in the 2015 World Cup, and the tears that followed. Although the quarterfinals were a bitter disappointment, it did provide a highlight of one of Ian Madigan’s trademark flat passes to set up Luke Fitzgerald for Ireland’s first try.
While Madigan achieved more than most in the game, there was a sense around the time of 2015 that he would go onto greater things, and perhaps keep Sexton company in future Ireland squads. However, while Sexton's career continued to soar to new heights, Madigan's began to wane, and looking back on his achievements at a relatively young age, there was a hope that he would take the next step to the elite level of 'world class'.
However, he can hold his head high having reached the top of Europe at both club level and for his country. Still only 32 years of age and with plenty still to give to Ulster, Madigan will no doubt have a few more highlights up his sleeve to add to his already impressive collection.