We are just two weeks into the season and yet to discuss the Heineken Cup, other than it’s future existence, so it may seem a tad early to consider the Irish team. But an intriguing battle has begun to play out even at this early stage of the season.
In less than eight weeks Joe Schmidt’s tenure as Irish coach will kick off in earnest when we play Samoa in the first of the autumn internationals. Since the retirement of Ronan O’Gara, at the end of last season, the fly-half position has not really been up for discussion, as Jonathan Sexton is undoubtedly in pole position at this point.
The more interesting discussion will be around the choice of back up fly-half and in that debate Schmidt has numerous options. The good news, from an Irish perspective, is he is spoiled for choice. Also, all the candidates are products of the Irish system, which has produced a conveyor belt of fly-halves going back many years.
It’s about six weeks for Joe Schmidt before the rubber really hits the road, but believe me that is the blink of an eye in preparing for the autumn internationals. He is also constrained by the fact that the provincial selections for fly-half have yet to be nailed down. But by the time we hit the 1st round of the Heineken every candidate to back up Jonathan Sexton should be on deck… Or will they?
The interviewee at the front of the queue is the twenty-four year old Ian Madigan. The Leinster fly-half has won four caps to date, two off the bench in last season’s Six Nations and two as the starter against USA and Canada last June. Less than a month ago he committed himself to Leinster until 2016. One would have to assume he sees his future and also his pathway to the Irish team is through Leinster. I for one believe, with a consistent run at fly-half for Leinster, he could actually mount a serious threat to Jonathan Sexton.
Madigan ticks all the boxes. He has that blue-chip skill, which is invaluable to a fly-half, of being able to threaten the gain line while at the same time put support runners through holes in the defence. He reminds me of a young Matt Giteau in almost every aspect of his game. Defensively he is smart and dogged, even if like most fly-halves he is occasionally run over by a front five wildebeest. His place kicking is solid, although his tactical kicking needs to be a little more measured and selective.
But to mount that threat he needs to play fly-half week in and week out for Leinster as soon as possible. The arrival of Jimmy Gopperth has suddenly made that possibility a little less certain for Madigan. Well Gopperth’s arrival is really not that sudden, as he signed for Leinster last March. It’s hard to believe Madigan would not have received some assurances from Matt O’Connor regarding his future role with Leinster before putting pen to paper last month.
The fact Madigan started ahead of Paddy Jackson on both summer’s tests in the USA and Canada would suggest he is in a strong position. It is hard to believe Joe Schmidt did not have some input to those selections. But Gopperth has gotten off to a flier with Leinster and has really put it up to Matt O’Connor regarding his value as a starter. But if Madigan is not starting for Leinster at fly-half come Heineken time, it will be difficult for Joe Schmidt to selection him as Sextons back-up.
There is no such issue facing the twenty-one year old Paddy Jackson, regarding his position as Ulster fly-half. Ulster set out their stall back in the spring of 2012 when Brian McLaughlin selected Jackson ahead of Ian Humphreys for the Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh. It seemed to be an inspired decision when Ulster won. But Jackson struggled in the final against Leinster. Although he could not be blamed solely for the loss, it was seen as possibly too much too soon for the youngster.
Jackson’s next parachute jump was for his 1st cap into the Six Nations. He was a surprise selection over Ronan O’Gara for the injured Jonathan Sexton in Murrayfield. Jackson played well despite Ireland losing. But his place kicking let him down on the day and has since been somewhat of a bugbear for him. It surfaced again last Friday night in Ravnhill when he missed a very kickable penalty late in the game, which would surely have sealed off the win for Ulster. It didn’t and Ulster were beaten at the death.
But apart from his place kicking Jackson is excellent at getting the attack moving while at the same time threatening the gain-line. Unlike Madigan’s agility, Jackson uses his speed and power to make breaks. He made a searing break on Friday night, which should have led to a match winning try, but the scoring pass went to ground. Not Jackson’s fault. His defence is strong and brave and he edges Madigan as a tactical kicker. The fact that he is a definite starter for Ulster will make it hard for Joe Schmidt to ignore him.
The two remaining candidates are the Munster fly-halves, Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan. Both players are vying to step up to the plate and fill the chasm left by the legendary O’Gara. Keatley would have been seen as the obvious replacement having migrated from Dublin to Connacht for three years before moving to Munster in 2012, to serve what seemed his apprenticeship to O’Gara.
Keatley is a more traditional fly-half, in that he is most comfortable managing a game from the pocket. He is an excellent tactical kicker and good defender. He is a threat to the gain-line but not as threatening as Madigan or Jackson. His place kicking is solid, but on occasion can be problematic, when his ball striking is not the sweetest.
It is hard to believe, but what may come against Ian Keatley is his age. He is now twenty-six and what’s more telling is he won both his Irish caps as fly-half on the Irish summer tour to USA and Canada in 2009. Also, last June when Madigan and Jackson were touring the Americas with Ireland, Ian Keatley was playing in Tbilisi with Emerging Ireland.
But with a good start to the season and a strong showing in 1st two rounds of the Heineken, Keatley could force his way into the frame. But that is only if he can see off the challenge of JJ Hanrahan for the Munster #10 shirt.
At just twenty-one and definitely the least experienced of all the contenders, Hanrahan would be the left field selection this autumn. But he is coming up fast on the outside of the other three contenders.
Hanrahan has impressed with every outing so far in all aspects of his game. He also ticks all the boxes as a fly-half and is an excellent place kicker. If he can win the fly-half spot from Ian Keatley in Munster he could well be wearing green before too long.
All this speculation may seem like premature semantics when we have a fly-half of the calibre of Jonathan Sexton in situ. One would expect Sexton to start start all of the autumn internationals. But Joe Schmidt knows he will have to find a back up for Sexton well before RWC 2015.
The opportunities to experiment with selection as Irish coach are limited. Certainly the autumn may prove the only window, as the performance of Ireland in the Six Nations is paramount from an IRFU perspective and end of season summer tours to the Antipodes are notoriously tough.
Also, should anything happen to Jonathan Sexton, the back up fly-half may be needed sooner rather than later. It is just over six months ago that Sexton missed the final three games of the Six Nations through injury.
I have no doubt that the process of finding Jonathan Sexton’s back up has already begun.