Tuesday 17 October 2017

Jackson hitting peak form at just the right time

Paddy Jackson is making a late run at World Cup selection (Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE)
Paddy Jackson is making a late run at World Cup selection (Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE)

When the history of Irish rugby is written, Declan Kidney's name will feature heavily in some of its greatest days.

When the story of the former Munster and Ireland coach himself is told, Paddy Jackson's name will feature heavily in the chapter titled: 'Downfall'.

Yet here we are near the end of the same World Cup cycle in which Kidney picked a just-turned 21-year-old ahead of the vastly experienced Ronan O'Gara for the Six Nations visit to Murrayfield and the kid who crumbled against Scotland - having previously endured a nightmare Heineken Cup final - is now showing new levels of resolve at just the right time.

That decision didn't directly cost Kidney his job, but it contributed to the end of days. Now, it looks like his successor is set to benefit from an out-half who, at still just 23, is showing signs of real maturity and confidence and is close to the top of his game.

"In that position it's about experience. He's got a lot of technical expertise, but knowing when to do the right things at the right time is difficult," Ulster defence coach Jonny Bell explained.

"You learn through making mistakes, Paddy was thrust in at a young age and things didn't go unbelievably well for him at the start and he took a lot of flak, but you grow in your character; he's stronger mentally and he knows what he's about."

Interprovincial games bring huge focus on Ireland selection as the race for places on the plane to England and Wales heats up and Ulster couldn't have asked for more window space with their run of games against Connacht, Leinster and Munster.

Against Connacht, Jackson showed a brilliant ability to spot a mismatch and changed the focus of the Ulster attack with devastating effect. Two weeks later, he carved Leinster open with his running game. Munster will have him well-marked tomorrow.

"You're beginning to see the type of player Paddy is," Conor Murray, Jackson's half-back partner on his difficult Ireland debut, said. "He's a threat at the line and you saw him making line breaks against Leinster and looking really dangerous.

"He always knew how to guide a team and follow a game plan and it's just, the longer you're there the more you're going to have an impact."

Within the Ulster dressing-room, Jackson is taking on more and more responsibility and earning the respect of his older, more experienced peers.

Jared Payne knows good out-halves having cut his teeth in a Crusaders team led by Dan Carter and has high hopes for his provincial team-mate.

"He's developing and if he can keep going like this he's definitely going to be a world-class out-half in a year or two hopefully," the Ireland centre said.

"His pass is unbelievable. There's a few times in training where if you don't get your hands out there quickly enough and it hits you in the stomach you get a bit winded.

"It's definitely a strength in his game and he's learning to use it more, he's developing a running game and if he can combine the two that would be great because his kicking is great. He's going to become the total package hopefully in a year or two.

Laid-back

"It seems like he's become a bit more, not laid-back, but he doesn't get as cut up after a bad performance as he maybe did a few years back.

"I wasn't involved in it but I was watching and with him afterwards, that Heineken Cup final (against Leinster in 2012), he beat himself up pretty badly. He didn't have that good a game and the way you see how he reacts to poor games now, he's a bit more level-headed and realises it's not the end of the world, that you can learn from it and improve and move forward."

Few players know Jackson better than his good friend and house-mate Iain Henderson who pointed out how hard the out-half works on his game, something that will tick one of Joe Schmidt's boxes.

"Paddy is an unbelievable player," Henderson said. "I'm not just saying that because I'm one of his best mates.

"His work ethic in terms of him training and doing his extras. Whenever you come into the stadium you can almost guarantee that Paddy is going to be there, practising his kicking, place-kicking, corner kicking, doing extra bits and pieces, just trying to keep on top of everything.

"That's just paying off for him now and it's really going to show, after having a rocky enough start to the season, with performances that he didn't really rate himself in and a couple of injuries, he's come back strong now."

Timing is everything in sport and Jackson appears to have made his late run at World Cup selection at just the right moment after missing all of Ireland's games this season through injury.

Johnny Sexton is undoubtedly the No1 fly-half in Schmidt's mind, but behind him Schmidt no set hierarchy as he has chosen both Jackson and his opponent tomorrow Ian Keatley to start when the Racing Metro man is unavailable, with Ian Madigan covering more positions and therefore getting the bench spot.

If the squad was being picked today, Jackson would be in the 31 and another brilliant derby display at Kingspan Stadium could cement his place.

Irish Independent

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