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Friday 15 December 2017

Leinster boss Matt O'Connor must pick either Ian Madigan or Jimmy Gopperth

Ian Madigan was impressive for Leinster
Ian Madigan was impressive for Leinster

The time has surely come for Leinster to show trust in Ian Madigan in the number ten shirt.

Okay, he played there last season. But, by and large, he was passed over for the more experienced outlook of Jimmy Gopperth and this was understandable given the New Zealander's form.

This has all changed this season.

While Madigan was busying himself between twelve, thirteen and fifteen, Gopperth was not building on the strong foundations he put in place from last term.

The injury to Noel Reid in the first round of the PRO12 League created a hole in the Leinster midfield soon filled by Madigan as Brendan Macken was followed into the outside centre role by the carefully IRFU managed Gordon D'Arcy.

This left Gopperth with the freedom of guaranteed game time to find his feet.

He has not been that bad. He just hasn't been as consistently good as he was this time last season. That would have opened the door for Madigan were he not needed elsewhere.

Coach Matt O'Connor handed the Irish international the playmaking role against Zebre at Stadio Aprile on Saturday and he, literally, wrenched it away from Gopperth.

"He was very, very good for us. His try turned the game. Across the course of it, he was very, very accurate," said O'Connor.

The contribution of thirteen points was highlighted by his defence-splitting step and acceleration between beleaguered forwards for Leinster opening try in the 44th minute.

The first-half was played out under the fall of rain on a pitch that tested the balance of all players.

O'Connor could be forgiven for not pointing to the cynicism of Zebre and the refereeing of Neil Patterson as a source of concern.

The home side continually refused to comply with the rules giving away five penalties before Leinster committed one.

However, the signs were ominous for the Irish province when they could not take advantage of the 17th minute binning of Marco Bortolami for trying to pull down a maul.

Scrum-half Isaac Boss thought he had made the breakthrough when he grounded the ball against the base of the post. Instead, he was penalised for playing the ball off his feet.

FRONT

In fact, Zebre hit the front from a penalty by their out-half Luciano Orquera when Jack McGrath was whistled for carrying out the same indiscretion as Bortolami, the difference being there was no threat of a try in the making.

Madigan squared it on award of a penalty for offside right on half-time, making the next score, certainly the first try, a real boost for whichever could grab it.

The pivotal moment that took the visitors into the lead for the first time came when Madigan cut inside Bortolami and had the wheels to beat scrum-half Guglielmo Palazzani from fully 45 metres.

He widened the gap to 13-3 with his conversion and a 49th minute penalty when the indisciplined Bortolami knifed in at the side of a maul.

This may not have been the European Rugby Champions Cup. But, it was a steadying impact as Leinster moved back to a break-even win three, lost three to stand in sixth place.

It would have been seriously damaging for European prospects to enter into combat with Wasps next Sunday on the end of back-to-back defeats in the PRO12.

This does not remove the difficulty Leinster faced against an increasingly resilient Zebre in Parma. The hosts had their chances as full-back David Odiete went close and their lock Quintin Geldenhuys had a try ruled out.

"They played very, very well," admitted O'Connor.

The simple fact of the matter was that Zebre killed the ball as often and as blatantly as Munster the week before, giving away a total of seven penalties to Leinster's one in the second period.

The difference here was that Leinster were able to take four points away from a side that showed no regard for the rules of the game.

"We had to work hard for everything we got. It was 3-all at half-time which was probably a fair indicator of how tough it was.

ACCURATE

"We were starting to get a little ascendency towards the end of the first-half.

"We thought at half-time if we could be a little bit more accurate and a little bit more up tempo that we would start to get some reward. Thankfully, we did".

Madigan took a monster thump when he was lifted and driven to the floor by replacement Valerio Bernabo just before Luke McGrath sniped for five, quickly turned to seven by Gopperth's extras as Madigan received attention.

This contest was also notable for a fine debut from openside Josh van der Flier.

He worked hard in a back row with Rhys Ruddock and number eight Jack Conan up against a formidable trio including Mauro Bergamasco and Samuela Vunisa.

"Josh van der Flier, for his first game in a Leinster shirt, was outstanding for us," reflected O'Connor.

"He worked incredibly hard. He did exactly what was asked of him. He had a tremendous game".

Van der Flier has been one to exist below the radar of 'the next big thing' in Leinster rugby.

However, he has been highly thought of for some time.

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