Pressure on Paddy Jackson to prove he's better fly-half than 127-cap Ronan O'Gara
The desperate Ireland injury crisis, exacerbated by the loosehead prop Cian Healy earning a suspension for a boneheaded stamp on England's Dan Cole, has helped usher Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall in for their debuts at fly-half and inside-centre respectively against Scotland today.
Marshall was arguably the next in line when Gordon D'Arcy went lame but the rugby world and his wife expected Ronan O'Gara as the incumbent bench man, and with 127 caps behind him, to cover the loss of Jonathan Sexton to a torn hamstring. And that included Jackson's own coach at Ulster.
"It's fair to say Paddy's selection is a surprise," said Mark Anscombe, who joined Ulster last summer and has picked the 21-year-old from Belfast to start all season as the province have thundered to the top of the Pro 12 and qualified for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
"The simple fact is that normally in this circumstance if one player [Sexton] is injured, you expect the guy who has been coming off the bench [O'Gara] to step up. So, yes, it is a surprise Ireland have done this but we're pleased for Paddy and Luke [who turns 22 next month]. Are they ready? Who knows? When's 'ready'? No one is complete at that age. In all my years in this game I haven't met a 21-year-old who's got his game mastered."
Anscombe has coached with and against some of the best fly-halves that New Zealand have to offer – Canterbury's Dan Carter, for instance – in previous roles in charge of Auckland and New Zealand's Under-20s, including his own son Gareth, the Kiwi Under-20s' fly-half who kicked 18 points when they won the 2011 Junior World Championship final against an England team containing Owen Farrell and George Ford.
Anscombe's principal concern as Jackson lines up opposite his Scottish namesake Ruaridh are that the Ireland pack give their two new midfielders the necessary front-foot momentum. "Paddy is a great kid with a good work ethic, and he's got what a good No 10 needs, which is self-belief," said Anscombe. "I rate him and he's a good footballer. From him and from Luke, you're going to see energy and confidence and vibrancy; they are strong defenders and will want to get involved. But they're relying on a forward pack giving them some go-forward ball.
"I hope they get the right quality of possession, and it's the start of a long career and not a temporary one at international level. It will not be fair to make judgement fully on a 21-year-old in his first cap. It can be damaging to a guy."
Jackson may feel particularly exposed as first-choice goal-kicker, given he has been behind the South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar for Ulster of late. Having recovered from an ankle injury to play in last Friday's Pro 12 match with Zebre, Jackson today will be picking up from last having the tee with Ireland's second team, the Wolfhounds, in a 14-10 loss to England Saxons on 25 January. "I'd have confidence in Paddy kicking," said Anscombe, "and there'll be a lot more games in the future when he'll be doing it for Ulster, I can assure you."
The Scottish capital rings a happy bell for Jackson as he was also a surprise pick ahead of Ian Humphreys for last season's Heineken Cup semi-final win over Edinburgh, although it was Pienaar who kicked goals from all over. Jackson kept his place for the final, a much less happy affair at Twickenham when he was roughed up by the victorious Leinster forwards, some of whom will be his team-mates today.
Which adds to the sense of a gamble by Ireland's coach Declan Kidney, reacting to the 12-6 home loss to England a fortnight ago, with Ulster's Tom Court recalled at loosehead prop for a first cap in 11 months to butt heads with Scotland's returning Geoff Cross in the absence on religious grounds of tighthead Euan Murray – the Scots' only change from their 34-10 thrashing of Italy last time out.
The Australian-born Court had a miserable time on his last Ireland appearance against England in March 2012, forced on at tighthead in the days of only one bench prop. A broken thumb kept him out of the summer tour to New Zealand, he was snubbed by Kidney in the autumn and only required for training to date in this Six Nations' Championship. Now there are two replacement props permitted, he has leapfrogged as a starter ahead of Munster's Dave Kilcoyne.
"Playing second fiddle for Cian Healy isn't so bad as he's got to be a front-runner for the Lions," said Court. "He can do stuff most props wouldn't even dream of doing."
Anscombe is delighted that Ireland have plundered Ulster to the tune of five starters and another two on the bench, the greatest representation for the northern province in more than a decade, even while Ulster's Steve Ferris, Chris Henry and Tommy Bowe are among the injured alongside Sexton, D'Arcy, Paul O'Connell, Simon Zebo and Mike McCarthy.
"Look at when Munster were dominant a few years ago, they dominated the Ireland team," said Anscombe, a former Auckland and North Harbour flanker who has also coached English clubs Moseley and Coventry. "Then Leinster did the same. Maybe Ulster can do that in the next year or two."
Still it is a shock that Kidney decided the shaky form of the 35-year-old O'Gara merited Jackson's promotion. O'Gara has known Kidney for 20 years since the latter was rugby organiser and a maths and accounting teacher at Presentation Brothers' College in Cork.
Another PBC old boy, scrum-half Peter Stringer, who is on loan to Bath after playing most of his career alongside O'Gara and under Kidney for Munster and Ireland, was watching as O'Gara replaced Sexton against England with 30 minutes gone.
"Ireland made too many unforced errors, they played in the wrong areas of the pitch," said Stringer, who predicted the captain Jamie Heaslip would react well to his butter-fingered part in that.
"Declan won't go into the numbers and figures too much; he'll get them into a mindset that there's a Championship still to be won."
Stringer and O'Gara posed recently for an Australian sculptor who is creating bronze statues to commemorate Munster rugby in Cork city centre. The pair will be depicted passing the ball to each other; today, though, Ireland's baton of responsibility has been passed to Paddy Jackson.
Independent News Service