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Ian Madigan: Love of Alan O'Connor and Ulster squad helped build my confidence for early heroics



Moment of glory: Ian Madigan celebrates after scoring his winning penalty with the last kick against Edinburgh

Moment of glory: Ian Madigan celebrates after scoring his winning penalty with the last kick against Edinburgh

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Moment of glory: Ian Madigan celebrates after scoring his winning penalty with the last kick against Edinburgh

What can you achieve in 99 minutes? It wouldn't get you from Belfast to the Aviva Stadium, even if you were allowed to make the journey - maybe the start of the M50 on a good day with no traffic.

Dinner? Perhaps if you skip dessert. A film? Sure 99 minutes into Lord of the Rings and the hobbits are still only talking about going to Mordor.

It's not even enough to get through your average rugby match these days what with ad breaks at half-time and the ubiquitous scrum resets.

What you can do in 99 minutes, it seems, is lead your new side through a seven-year glass ceiling.

Such is the unusual nature of this season, it's taken little more than an hour and a half in an Ulster jersey for Ian Madigan to kick his way into the final of the Guinness PRO14 against his native Leinster and into the hearts of the Kingspan faithful in the process.

As his Bristol career fizzled out, it had been a long time waiting for a moment like the one provided by his last-second, semi-final-winning penalty against Edinburgh last weekend and the 31-year-old has appreciated the sudden change of pace.

"I don't really have any demons from the last 18 months because I still think I've been true to myself in how I've gone about my training and getting my mind and my body right to hit the ground running with Ulster," he said.

"At the same time, it was a period that went quite slowly for me. I'm very lucky because I have great people around me - my fiancée Anna, my parents, my friends - and just being able to draw on them and being around them throughout the last few months built up my confidence again.

"Even with the club, Dan (McFarland) is big on the psychological side and he's been great at building my confidence up and ensuring I fit into the squad really quickly.

"It has been a bit unusual going into the cauldron of two inter-pros, then a semi-final and now a final. It's happened thick and fast but I'd have it no other way.

"The player group have been fantastic, I felt like I'd settled in after a couple of days, and then after a couple of weeks I felt like I'd built up good friendships.

"Before I hit the kick, Al O'Connor was captain and he told me he loved me which was a nice touch.

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"I've only known him a couple of weeks but for him to be expressing his love for me, it gave me a boost of confidence.

"That could have been the difference."

So too could it prove that the win makes a huge difference for Ulster. Given that, of those who featured in Murrayfield, only Rob Herring had played when the side last won a knockout game of this stature, it is a victory that takes a monkey off their backs.

Madigan won a pair of Pro12 titles during his stay at Leinster, the first when starting at inside centre in a victory over Ulster in 2013, as well as two Heineken Cups, but doesn't feel his new side's own lack of trophy-winning pedigree will be a disadvantage come this weekend in Dublin.

"I've good experience with finals but a lot of the Ulster guys have been part of Six Nations triumphs with Ireland and have played in big games and World Cups (too)," he said.

"It's very important in weeks like this to get your work done early. You don't want to be cruising through the first half of the week and then you get to Thursday night, Friday, the nerves start hitting you and you start to cram like you'd do for an exam.

"You get the work done early in the week. You build that confidence with the players around you in training so that you can carry that into the game, those mini-relationships on certain plays, setting the team up exactly how you want, ensuring guys you want to catch the ball off the attacking line, that you're getting the ball in their hands.

"In these weeks, and we sensed it last week, when energy is really high - which is good, that's what you want - but you've got to be able to hold that back in a way, that guys are getting in the right position and ultimately our plays work.

"That would be my two bits of advice: get your study done early in the week and manage that energy so that we're not making mistakes because, ultimately, in a final that can be the difference."

Especially against a side like Leinster, who, after beating Munster in their own semi-final, have a daunting record this year of played 22, won 22.

Much will no doubt be written in the coming days of the large number of Dublin exiles in the Ulster side (eight of their 23 last week were born within Leinster before coming north) and their desire to prove some sort of point. But when Madigan looks across at his old side in the Aviva Stadium, for 80 minutes at least, he'll see just another team, admittedly a brilliant one, standing in the way of his new club's ambitions for silverware.

"We're very much focused on what we're doing as Ulstermen and putting that into practice on Saturday," he said.

"Using the experience of guys who have been in finals, even with other squads, is something that any team would draw on but it's certainly not a thing of going to former Leinster players and getting the inside track.

"I've so many fond memories of playing with Leinster. They're a fantastic club and I'm still good friends with a lot of the guys there. But come Saturday, I'd like to think there's a mutual respect and you kind of park the friendship for 80 minutes, and then after the game you kick off again.

"I'm part of the Ulster squad now and I'll be doing everything I can to get Ulster over the line come Saturday. The people of Northern Ireland and Belfast have been very warm, and that's certainly meant a lot to me and players coming from other clubs.

"It's very welcoming and hopefully they'll get to see what it means to play for this fantastic club when we take the field."

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