Tony Ward: Paddy Jackson will soon push Johnny Sexton for Ireland spot
Published 12/05/2015 | 02:30
It would be stretching it to suggest a star was born at the Kingspan Stadium last Saturday, but certainly a potential first-choice Ireland No 10 came of age.
At 23 and with nine caps already in the locker, Paddy Jackson could scarcely be described a 'gasúr' and yet a sense of excitement surrounded a performance that, while still far from complete, was brimming with promise.
Make no mistake, Jackson has what it takes to establish himself as Ireland's back-up out-half for the World Cup.
And more than that, there are definite signs that he will be good enough to challenge Johnny Sexton - currently the best No 10 in the world - for a place in the not too distant future.
Sexton is by some way the best out-half available to Joe Schmidt at the moment but I see enough in the still developing Ulster tyro to suggest that he can become a game-managing string-puller over and above the ordinary.
What he lacks at present is a kicking game to match the thought process so clearly at work in the white heat of action.
He is the most natural out-half to play for Ulster since David Humphreys - who was for me the most gifted player to represent the province apart from the incomparable Jackie Kyle, and I include Mike Gibson in his out-half days in that assessment.
Humphreys was hugely under-rated outside Ulster, and so too now is Jackson.
I still maintain that Humphreys in his pomp for Ireland was at least the equal if not better than his nemesis Ronan O'Gara, although the Munster man rightly hits legendary status on the basis of consistency and longevity over an extraordinary career.
Jackson's greatest strength is the incredibly smooth and lightning-quick link he provides between Ruan Pienaar and the outside backs. In terms of accuracy and sensitivity for the needs of others, his passing is in the Paul Dean class.
Deano couldn't kick snow off a rope, but when it came to dictating a game and opening up the opposition through clever dexterity, his hands did the talking. O'Gara too had that amazing ability to invite others through a gap they may not have seen prior to hitting the cleverly weighted pass.
Where Jackson scores over Dean is in a kicking game that is still a work in progress. The raw material is in place and will develop with experience.
And if anyone doubted his ability to kick goals under pressure - and there have been issues on big occasions in times past - those concerns were surely dispelled at Ravenhill.
In fairness to Ian Keatley, the Munster playmaker lost little in their private head-to-head, not least in terms of marksmanship, but the difference in distributive precision was marked.
Schmidt will have registered this game big time. The pecking order was Sexton, Ian Madigan and then Keatley, with the selection of Keatley ahead of Madigan against Italy in the opening game of the Six Nations - when Sexton was unavailable - confirming the head coach's reservations over the Leinster man's game management.
Madigan is still good enough to make the World Cup squad and I believe will, but Jackson is the only man who can really put pressure on Sexton.
Beyond that, Anthony Foley and Munster will be bitterly disappointed at letting this one slip away.
That said, a draw was just about right as what we witnessed was classic Munster on the road. Ulster dominated field position and possession but such was the quality and intensity of Munster's organised defending that in the opening 40 minutes the hosts created just one kick at goal until a piece of typical Rory Best tactical astuteness saw the inspirational Ulster hooker outsmart his Ireland skipper when reading Paul O'Connell's tap-down from Keatley's shortened re-start.
The try that followed ignited the stadium. Iain Henderson's off-load to Tommy Bowe was sublime, although Felix Jones - who played with great assurance otherwise - should not have let Bowe break so easily through his attempted tackle.
That ten-point turnaround made for a shell-shocked away dressing-room at the break but credit Foley and everyone involved for what followed.
With Jack O'Donoghue immense, the introduction of John Ryan and BJ Botha solidified the Munster scrum even more, and Ulster were struggling.
On the plus side, Dan Tuohy was again a powerful presence and that too will not have been lost on the watching Schmidt.
Henderson continued on his powerful upward curve and on outflanked Peter O'Mahony. His late sending off - whether reckless or malicious - was downright stupid.
Peter Nelson and Stuart McCloskey provide further proof that Ulster Academy is in good order.
McCloskey is just 22, but his gain-line breaking ability - through a combination of raw strength and clever angled running - could see him in the Ireland set-up sooner rather than later.
As against Leinster, he provided the late forward momentum which on this occasion produced a magnificent pass to Paul Marshall for the try that, with Jackson's nerveless conversion, saved the match. A fitting outcome all round.
Conan and Cronin deserve Leinster awards
Leinster might not have got too much right on the field in a season of disappointment but off the field they continue to make the right calls.
Take their end of year awards which took place in Dublin on Saturday night, where Jack Conan was named Young Player of the Year, while Sean Cronin took the top gong as Player of the Season.
Maybe this World Cup has come a little early for Conan (though don't write him off just yet) but, like his fellow Jack in Munster (O'Donoghue) he looks guaranteed to make an impact at the highest level in the future.
As for Cronin, in my view he has been by far the best Irish-qualified hooker this season, yet I support Joe Schmidt in his rationale of starting Rory Best and using Cronin as an impact replacement. Tough but right.