Ian Madigan is undoubtedly the biggest loser in the scramble to make the cut for Joe Schmidt’s 30-man Ireland squad to travel to Argentina.
The Leinster fly-half has suffered the slings and arrows from his in-out presence at club level where Jimmy Gopperth has often been the preferred option of Matt O’Connor.
Madigan must have thought his miraculous impact in turning around the PRO12 semi-final would have put him in the driving seat as a utility back to cover ten and twelve.
It has not worked out that way. Schmidt’s decision to omit Madigan and Munster’s first choice out-half Ian Keatley is based on squad balance and other reasons.
“The thing for Ian is that he hasn’t had much game time lately,” stated Schmidt.
“I’ve had a really good discussion with him. He’s going to come in and train with us, but he will go on the emerging tour and that will give him, and the likes of Ian Keatley, who has played really well, some game time over there and we will still be keeping a close eye on that group.”
The nature of the short two-match tour means Schmidt sees more value in Madigan adding game time for Emerging Ireland rather than sitting on the bench or in the stand in Argentina.
It must have come as a real blow to Madigan, who was the beneficiary of a surprising bench selection for Ireland’s glorious Six Nations decider against France in Paris, Paddy Jackson falling foul of Schmidt’s need to cover creaking bodies back in March.
This time, Jackson gets the nod for South America even though Madigan provided the priceless addition of X-Factor brilliance with defensive resolve for Leinster on Saturday.
“It’s really that we believe to only take two scrum-halves would be very, very difficult, so we’ve gone with three scrum-halves. To go with six halves would have been a real tightening on numbers.”
The likelihood is that Jackson could well see precious few minutes on the field in Argentina as Racing Metro’s Jonathan Sexton reported for international duty.
“He’s in. He’s got a spring in his step and he’s feeling fresh and ready to go. I’ve no doubt that he’ll benefit from the next two weeks preparation and that’s a bonus for us,” said Schmidt.
In fact, Madigan is on a shortlist of players ready to travel at the drop of a hat. The problem is that will only come about through injury to one of his own as PRO12 League finalists Leinster provide exactly one-third of the Ireland squad.
Their 10 members are topped up by nine from Ulster, eight from Munster, two from Connacht in Robbie Henshaw and Kieron Marmion and the overseas Sexton.
It would seem highly likely that Westmeath man Henshaw will be given first crack at nailing down the number thirteen jersey vacated by Brian O’Driscoll.
These two tests will be the most important matches in the career of the 20-year-old, to this point, as the presence of Jared Payne looms large for Ireland this season.
The much-touted return of Munster’s mercurial Simon Zebo is a reward for the wing’s willingness to take on board specific instruction on what Schmidt wanted to see.
The eagle-eyed New Zealander was keen to let everyone know Zebo has always been on the radar: “I think it’s inaccurate to say he was not in my thinking.
“There are a number of players who don’t get selected, who are very much in the forefront of all the coaches’ thinking. We saw a number of the elements that he brings.
“I think there are still some things he will be working hard on in camp and he’ll be given some direction about some other things that we do need.”
The latest evidence of Zebo’s form came last Friday night when he produced an inconsistent performance in the PRO12 defeat by Glasgow Warriors.
“I think if you were objective on Friday night you’d see a few things he needs to work on,” said Schmidt.
“And at the same time you’d definitely see a few of those things that he brings. He’s like any other player, there’s very much competition for places there.”
The expectation levels for these two test matches are difficult to gauge given how Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Tommy Bowe, Gordon D’Arcy and Cian Healy will not be on board.
“I’d like to think the team can perform well and keep some continuity going from the Six Nations,” stated Schmidt, who won’t be content with anything less than two victories.
“I felt that we finished November last year with that performance against the All Blacks, while not quite getting over the line. Although we didn’t quite beat England at Twickenham.
“I still think that they’re a super team and we worked our way through that really well.
“I think our primary thing is to build a little bit of depth, a little bit of competition for those places to give players the opportunity to prove that they’re worth the places because any time you go to Argentina, speaking to people who toured there, it is going to be combative.”
IRELAND SQUAD (30)
Forwards (16): P O’Connell (capt), R Best, J Cronin, R Diack, I Henderson, C Henry, J Heaslip, R Herring, D Kilcoyne, J McGrath, M Moore, J Murphy, M Ross, R Ruddock, D Toner, D Varley.
Backs (14): D Cave, K Earls, R Henshaw, P Jackson, F Jones, R Kearney, K Marmion, L Marshall, F McFadden, C Murray, E Reddan, J Sexton, A Trimble, S Zebo.