Paddy Jackson: 'I try to focus on the next play, not what the crowd thinks'
'Comfortable' out-half Jackson has put Six Nations demons behind him, writes David Kelly
Paddy Jackson will arrive onto the rutted Lansdowne Road pitch tomorrow laden with other people's baggage.
For some, his selection is almost an apologetic afterthought. It is as if he is a kind beneficiary of fate.
With Johnny Sexton playing too much for Ireland's good, and Ian Madigan playing too little, it is as if Jackson merely shoehorns himself into Irish rugby's most historically tense debate – the choice of out-half.
The Ulster man, however, is light on his feet as he sashays into view. If there is a burden weighing him down, it is invisible. To him at least.
He may still have to sway the perceptions of others but, that much, at least, will no longer detain him.
"He is quietly spoken," observes Joe Schmidt. "But he's strong-minded and he has that ability to guide us around the pitch."
Some scars still remain, though. His goal-kicking horror show against Scotland in the Six Nations last season – one from four – regurgitated by Ronan O'Gara in his new autobiography, will inflame a plethora of doubters.
It is the out-half's lot; O'Gara too suffered the brickbats in his early days. They all do. Few positions admit such outlandish degrees of assessment.
The out-half is a much more convenient option to kick around than the blindside flanker.
"You get used to it," says Jackson. "It is hard to deal with sometimes. It's something you have to get used to. You have family and friends to help out. But I can't do much about changing people's minds. I have to focus on my own game.
"It's hard. These things creep into your minds sometimes and you just have to try to shut them out and have confidence in yourself."
That confidence has oozed from every pore this season as he has been central to much of Ulster's bristling beginning to the campaign.
Beyond that prism, though, the wider public will still refer to last season when his difficulties seemed to mirror an imploding Ireland.
"I haven't changed at all," he says. Amidst the outrage that followed the Scotland game, it is often difficult to remember that, in open play, Jackson did all – and more – that was asked of him.
"It's just experience. I'm feeling very comfortable the way I'm playing now. Maybe, in the past if things went well, I felt I might have overdone things to compensate, maybe kick out on the full or something," he says.
"So, it's about staying calm, coming down to that composure. I try to focus on the next play, not the result or what people are thinking of you, or what the crowd are thinking, or anything like that."
With Sexton and Madigan ruled out for varying reasons, Jackson might seem like a compromise choice, but Schmidt was at pains to demur from such a lazy assessment.
"Ian is a player I know really well and have a lot of time for," explains Schmidt.
"I think he has had limited opportunities this year, whereas Paddy has had that continuity of game time. He's shown a progression through that game time and was able to convince us that he was the right man for the job to start with."
Sexton would have been a vital contributor to implementing Schmidt's ideas on the field; hence, Jackson has sought out the Racing Metro star in an attempt to align himself with the Kiwi's vision.
"Johnny hasn't been training the last week, but any questions I've had, I've gone to him and asked," reveals Jackson. "He has a lot of experience working under Joe's game plan and has been helpful, so that has been good.
"A lot of the main calls are the same, he just brings in his style of playing, his patterns and stuff. It's his calls very much in terms of the patterns.
"For a lot of guys it's about getting used to that, but it's effective."
For all that, though, the public will still home in on his performances from the tee.
Frustratingly, he still shares kicking duties at Ulster with Ruan Pienaar, which is often acceptable if the South African assumes responsibility for the long-range efforts, but that hasn't always been the case this season.
He has mixed excellent displays from the tee – six from seven against Leicester – with the ordinary – four misses from seven against Cardiff.
Still just 21, Jackson has had to accelerate his development. His talent is undeniable, as anyone who watched him help Ulster destroy the mighty Montpellier in France last month can attest.
His distribution on the gainline and a last-ditch tackle that has become a YouTube hit confirms that his all-round game is pretty special.
Now, after being demoted behind Madigan last summer, is his time to emerge from the shadows and really lay down a marker to be the established secondary out-half option for the rest of this series.
"When I first came into these camps, it was kind of cool seeing all these players and being with them," he says. "But now it's like being back home. The more I play with them, the more comfortable I feel.
"It's something I enjoy, leading the attack and leading the team. Once you get on the pitch, you have to turn into a different person though. It's like having a different personality."
Ireland will hope that he stamps that personality all over his team tomorrow evening.