Mighty Jackson hits all the right notes
Ulster 30 Leinster 6
Published 02/05/2016 | 02:30
When Paddy Jackson emptied Ian Madigan in the final 10 minutes, sending his Irish rival closer to where his and Leinster's distracted minds seemed to be wandering all day, the shuddering impact was replicated by the rollicking Kingspan stands.
After he intercepted an errant Eoin Reddan pass, before dashing some 70 metres to the line for his side's third try of a thumping win against the purported title challengers, many pockets of the travelling support were already scouting the car park for a way out.
Sadly, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt was doing the same; like most with a shrewd brain, he had perhaps figured out a long way out that Leinster were dust as far as this contest was concerned. Some will hope that he has made a similarly accurate judgement about the relative merits of his supporting acts at out-half; on this evidence, Paddy Jackson's omission from Schmidt's squad continues to seem as baffling as ever.
Jackson was so knackered after his bolt from the 22 that Paul Marshall deputised to drop-kick the resultant conversion; he deserved a rest.
Different time, different place, different people but there was the slightest echo from the 2006 European semi-final when another out-half cast aside an army of doubters to dominate his tussle with an exalted Leinster rival.
Jackson didn't mount any advertising hoardings, like Ronan O'Gara did in Dublin that day - a 30-6 score too - or beat his chest in triumph for the media afterwards; he didn't need to.
His performance was sufficiently eloquent; not alone the 70m dash but his flash of genius for Jared Payne's 57th try that effectively sealed the encounter.
A set-piece play, true; and against a man down in Leinster's defence, but Jackson smeared his prints all over the canvas.
Feinting to go one way, instead he shifted left to Luke Marshall; that he was right on the gain-line immediately took a handful of blue defenders out of the game.
His centre then had a prairie of field before him and a choice of suitors beseeching the try-scoring pass.
It was a moment of sheer class.
"You can't teach that," marvels an admiring Chris Henry. "It's just experience and repetition.
"Paddy has had a lot of that this year," beams Ulster's director of rugby Les Kiss, after a win that gives his side more than a fighting chance of edging into the play-offs, should they win away to Ospreys.
"He has shaped well and asked a question of not just one defence, but the next one or in the inside one. It opens up a bit of space for us. It is a bit of class, yes for sure."
Even if Madigan were not departing for fresh fields, it would be inconceivable for the Ulster man's international exile to continue this summer after trumping both Leinster's international out-halves, not that Schmidt's former assistant was going to poke that particular hornet's nest.
Five successful pots at the sticks and resounding defence augmented the slick distribution which ably served his coach's deliberate game-plan to avoid an ugly forward battle in order to test the Leinster defence in wider channels.
"We know Joe has got a very rational mind and he will just look at what he has to and then he watches the video again so I would not try to speculate what he thinks," adds Kiss.
"From our perspective the boys did well for Ulster. They know that rewards come from doing well at provincial level and those decisions are out of our hands. He will not lose the run of himself."
Teams respond to the confidence and control engendered by their pilot; despite parading a purportedly weaker front five and ineffective back-row, Ulster prospered against their dismal visitors, with pack and pivot dove-tailing seamlessly to serve an occasionally scintillating three-quarters.
"As a pack we realise that our backline is pretty lethal," says Henry. "We're very lucky to have a backline like it. We want to get the ball into Paddy's hands as much as possible.
"You saw that try from the maul when it broke off to him, obviously Leinster had the yellow, but Jacko is picking the right options.
"I've seen a massive development. He's a very driven guy and he's a leader of this team now. You need your out-half to lead the team. I thought he was awesome again.
"But how many times did Ben Te'o run at him? That was obviously a game plan from Leinster but he made the hit. He's got the skills but he's got the big heart as well to put the body on the line."
Should Ulster retain their current fourth slot - Munster have selfish reasons of their own to help their cause against fifth-placed Scarlets - they will need to win three successive games away from home to win their first title in 10 seasons.
"Who knows how this is all going to pan out," says Henry. "There's a good chance we'll meet Leinster again at some stage but we need to keep our heads down.
"We'll use this and build on it. We'll look hard at ourselves because there's plenty more to come from us. I don't think any team has hit full gear yet and whatever team from the top four kicks on will take it. Hopefully we can regroup for a massive finish."
Ulster - J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall (D Cave 74), S McCloskey (S Olding 55), R Scholes; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 74); C Black (K McCall 68), R Best capt (R Herring 68), R Lutton (A Warwick 68), P Browne (R Diack 64), F van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Henry (R Wilson 55), S Reidy.
Leinster - R Kearney; I Nacewa capt, G Ringrose (L Fitzgerald 51), B Te'o, D Kearney (I Madigan 73); J Sexton, L McGrath (E Reddan 51); J McGrath (P Dooley 69), R Strauss (S Cronin 51), T Furlong (M Ross 51), D Toner, H Triggs (M Kearney 53), R Ruddock, J van der Flier (J Murphy HT), J Heaslip.
Ref - G Clancy (IRFU).