Surprise start Jackson proves he needs no 'babysitting' at top level
Published 30/04/2012 | 05:00
WHEN Paddy Jackson was named starting 10 for Ulster's biggest match for 13 years, it was seen as a gamble by coach Brian McLaughlin.
No one doubted the youngster's talent -- the concern was lack of experience, and handing the 20-year-old his first European start in a Heineken Cup semi-final in front of the biggest attendance Ulster have encountered since winning the title in 1999 was a massive ask.
However, McLaughlin's instincts were on the money once again and Jackson (right) embraced the challenge with unfussy assurance, giving a neat, efficient display that proved conclusively he is equipped to handle the big stage.
The key was the experience either side of him. Paddy Wallace oozed excellence and authority at 12 while, inside, there was the sublime control of Ruan Pienaar, who produced one of the finest individual scrum-half displays ever witnessed in Lansdowne Road.
Edinburgh coach Michael Bradley knows a thing or two about the position, having enjoyed a 10-year career there with Ireland and his admiration for the South African flowed after Pienaar's Man of the Match display on Saturday.
"He's just quality, he oozes confidence -- at out-half and scrum-half -- and that's what you want," said Bradley. "He's a very dangerous rugby player, never mind kicker, and he's playing behind a pretty strong pack, which can dictate where the space is.
"You have to be very good to exploit it and, physically, he's a very tall, lean man, very strong and he's got some fantastic touches.
"The test for Ulster and Pienaar will be in the final when they won't be going forward, then you will see the quality come through -- and that will be a big test."
No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg and Pienaar have a shared Afrikaner background and a close working relationship at the back of the scrum, as demonstrated for Ulster's try in the first half.
"The scrum went forward for us and Ruan just shouted 'pick up, pick up and go' so it just opened up for me," recalled Wannenburg.
"Ruan has played amazing rugby since he's been at Ulster -- it is always good to look up and see you don't have to run back and you can always run forward."
Wallace (32) came into the Ravenhill set-up shortly after that 1999 triumph and years of watching Ulster tread water in Europe has heightened the centre's appreciation for what Pienaar provides.
"Absolutely outstanding," said Wallace. "The way he played is a testament to him and to his preparation. I can't speak highly enough of Ruan, he certainly deserved the Man of the Match award because he was absolutely flawless."
Wallace was equally delighted with Jackson's contribution and the rapid progress he has made over a short period of time.
"I remember playing with him last year and there was a lot of babysitting going on, but that's been put to the side now and he's stepped up to the mark himself.
"He's mature enough now to play at this level. He was very good, clear and concise and didn't seem overawed by the occasion at all," added Wallace, who said the lean years have added to his appreciation of this season's success.
"I'm one of the players who's been here the longest and we've been through some hard times. If you told me three years ago that we'd be in a Heineken Cup final now, I would have laughed at you, and there's great credit to Ulster for setting their sights very high.
"(Director of rugby) David Humphreys has done a fantastic job to bring in world-class players. They've brought a belief that we can go to this level."