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Jonathan Bradley of Belfast Telegraph (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Benefits of Ian Madigan's signing makes the heated reception for Ulster's new recruit very curious

Jonathan Bradley



On way: Ian Madigan could prove a valuable member of the Ulster squad next season

On way: Ian Madigan could prove a valuable member of the Ulster squad next season

�INPHO/James Crombie

On way: Ian Madigan could prove a valuable member of the Ulster squad next season

While there are plenty of considerably more grave realities to face up to as the population adjusts to the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, a not-so-super Saturday brought home the possibility that rugby supporters may soon be just as well switching their attention to next season.

The 2019-20 campaign already can't finish on time and, for those like Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson who began their pre-season on June 12 and went through a World Cup last autumn, to plough on indefinitely in the hope that a cross-border competition like the PRO14 can resume at some point in the near future obviously flies in the face of player welfare, even if training and travel bans were to be lifted.

The sporting cost of a cancelled season would feel historically substantial; losing the likes of Ulster's Champions Cup quarter-final trip to Toulouse and Leinster's quest for an unbeaten campaign is a reminder of how the game can feel like the most significant of insignificant things in so many lives.

The financial impact too - for Ulster the impact of lost gate receipts and matchday revenue would surely exceed £1m - would be disastrous for a sport where the margins are considerably finer than for the likes of the similarly suspended Premier League or NBA.

Yet, in the global context, it feels an increasingly likely outcome that the next club rugby we see in this part of the world could be the beginning of the 2020-21 season, especially with today due to belatedly bring about the long-expected official postponement of this season's Champions and Challenge Cup competitions.

To that end, the next time we see the Ulster squad together, it could be an altered version of the one we left behind when Dan McFarland's men beat the Cheetahs at Kingspan more than three weeks ago now.

While the season has since been put on ice, plans for the next year have continued behind the scenes with two additions confirmed during the absence of on-field action with both offering a clear indication into the areas where McFarland and co have identified a need for improvement.

CEO Jonny Petrie has recently called for an end to the constant comparisons to the province's highly-decorated near-neighbours Leinster and yet their blueprint for success is clear - unrivalled depth.

Over the past two summers, players have arrived with the obvious intention of improving the northern province's starting line-up.

Fitness-permitting, Will Addison, Marty Moore, Jack McGrath and Jordi Murphy have all arrived as advertised and sprinkled greater quality throughout a first XV that had stagnated in the tumultuous years since 2014.

This time last year, the intention will have been for southern hemisphere imports Sam Carter and Matt Faddes to make a similar impact only for both to endure injury-hit first campaigns in Belfast.

With McFarland's second campaign bringing with it continued improvement in results, the most important business has focused upon keeping that front-line side intact.

Billy Burns, Moore, Sean Reidy and McGrath have all penned deals to stay with the side, while Stockdale's signing of a first central contract will keep him in the white jersey too.

When it comes to outgoings, at least five members at the upper end of the Academy have been told they are free to explore other opportunities, with the same number again from the lower end of the senior panel also set to move on.

But with it seemingly increasingly likely that Addison, Murphy and Louis Ludik will all be around next year too, additions have been targeted that will give greater depth in key specialised positions.

The arrivals of former All Black Alby Mathewson and the 30-times-capped Irish international Ian Madigan will give the side a greater level of experience among their half-backs like the days when Paul Marshall and Ian Humphreys provided back-up to Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson.

Against such a backdrop, some of the reaction to the weekend's confirmation of Madigan's signing was curiously heated.

With Burns the recipient of a two-year deal last autumn and a Six Nations squad place in January, he is clearly well thought of in Kingspan Stadium and has already had a show of faith. His performances this season have been assured, his kicking game a good foil for the heroics of scrum-half John Cooney.

He has, though, played through injury and ailment too. And while the 23-year-old Bill Johnston impressed in his two outings prior to the coronavirus-enforced stoppage to this season, another more experienced option figures to be a welcome addition.

Leinster haven't become the best side in Europe by worrying about what the return from injury of Dan Leavy and Jack Conan will mean for Scott Penny, Max Deegan and Caelan Doris.

Clever rotation, a packed schedule, injuries and international commitments all combine to ensure there are more than enough minutes to accommodate wider squads than ever before - the more options available to McFarland the better.

While the competitive instinct is no doubt still strong, Madigan, who had lost his starting berth at Bristol to the younger Callum Sheedy this season, will not arrive as the Irish international that left these shores for Bordeaux in 2016 and expecting to immediately banish Burns, Johnston or Mike Lowry into the wilderness, nor will he be paid like it. He signs not as a replacement but an addition, one with some key points of difference.

He brings a wealth of experience, versatility and a reputation as a good team-mate even when selection calls haven't gone his way. On a one-year deal, any risk is minimal too.

In a season that already seems sure to be another test of a club's entire squad given the inevitability of rescheduled Six Nations games for the autumn, that could prove a valuable commodity indeed.

Belfast Telegraph