Italy the perfect game to give Paddy Jackson the chance his form has merited
Published 08/03/2016 | 02:30
The curious case of Paddy Jackson's Six Nations could take another twist with inclusion against Italy this weekend, or more likely it will continue to simmer below the surface.
So far this campaign, the Ulster out-half has been sent home on Wednesdays not to return for the weekend, facing Dragons, Glasgow, Scarlets and Zebre this spring instead of Wales, France or England.
The IRFU would dispute the idea that this Saturday's game against Italy is a dead-rubber, but Joe Schmidt has used the word "transition" to describe the post-World Cup campaign that has seen his side slip to two defeats and a draw in their three Six Nations games to date.
There is a financial imperative to win, the difference between a third- and fifth-placed finish is €1m, while the team could do with the morale boost that victory would bring.
Yet, with Scotland representing a step up in class next weekend and three Tests against South Africa, two games against New Zealand and a meeting with Australia to come in this calendar year the window of opportunity for blooding new faces closes at full-time on Saturday.
For all that, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane have made positive impressions, but there appears to be a reluctance to tackle the lack of depth in three key positions; scrum-half, out-half and tighthead prop.
Tadhg Furlong remains out in the cold, meaning that Schmidt will persist with a 36-year-old starter and 34-year-old back-up for the No 3 position, while Kieran Marmion may finally get a chance to make his Six Nations debut off the bench against Italy if the head coach replaces Eoin Reddan this weekend.
At the World Cup, it was the lack of back-up behind Johnny Sexton that was exposed badly when the heat came on against Argentina.
Ian Madigan wasn't personally blamed for the defeat, but both Schmidt and IRFU performance director David Nucifora pointed to his lack of opportunity at Leinster as a factor in him not being ready when required for the biggest game in Irish rugby in four years.
Madigan's selection ahead of Jackson was a call that went against Schmidt's previous decisions.
Under the New Zealander, when Sexton has been fit he's played but the shake-up of the chasing pack has shifted over time.
Jackson got the nod when the then-Racing 92 man was rested for the head coach's first game in charge against Samoa, but the Ulster man has only started one World Cup warm-up game in the 29 games since.
Jackson was a replacement for the subsequent Six Nations games before being dropped for Madigan for the final game in Paris. He was then picked to tour Argentina, but got injured and Madigan was elevated.
Even though the two Tests at the end of a gruelling season appeared to afford a window in which an alternative to Sexton might get some game-time, Schmidt started his main man in both Tests against a weakened Pumas.
Madigan came on in both games and remained on the bench through the November internationals, but when Sexton was stood down for 12 weeks as a result of suffering four head injuries in 2014 the head coach turned to Ian Keatley for the first and only time to lead the backline in the Six Nations opener against Italy in Rome.
When Sexton returned, Madigan kept the No 22 jersey and has held it ever since; taking the No 10 shirt when the out-half's adductor strain failed to heal in time to face Argentina.
The hierarchy has been denied by the Ireland management who claim each selection is made on a weekly basis, but it looks as clear as can be.
Before the World Cup, Jackson was considered next in line when Sexton wasn't available, with Madigan the preferred bench option because of his ability to cover a multitude of positions; but when the push came in Cardiff when Sexton was ruled out of the quarter-final against Argentina, Madigan got the nod.
There has been nothing to disabuse the wider public of the notion that the fly-half pecking order has changed despite the fact that Jackson has been tearing up trees for Ulster since the tail end of last season. Sexton is the undisputed main man and his performance at Twickenham only re-emphasised his importance to the team, but there is plenty of debate as to whether Schmidt is backing the right horse as back-up.
Madigan's decision to leave for Bordeaux next season, where he will be outside the IRFU's control for at least two years, appears to open up an avenue for Jackson to step up a grade, but he will feel that he shouldn't have to wait; that his form demands selection.
And, given Ireland's struggles when Sexton has been injured, the more experience he gets the better. Certainly, his Ulster colleagues believe that he is ready to take the next step.
"From a provincial point of view Paddy is probably our most important player," Andrew Trimble said yesterday. "When he plays we generally play well, he's a guy who has just matured so much in the last few years.
"When he came in at the start he was wet behind the ears, he was a youngster and he's just become a leader. He cracks the whip, he's a leader, he makes sure standards are maintained and you don't have to look further than Johnny to see someone who Jacky's on his way to becoming, in my opinion anyway.
"What he's had to deal with, in being thrown in there a couple of times when things aren't going well and taking a hard time, he has shown massive maturity and resilience."
That's high praise, but it remains to be seen if the head coach will be convinced. The imperative to win will probably see him continue with Sexton and it will be hard to argue that Ireland's chances of victory will be better with the Dubliner's hand on the tiller.
But come full-time, the window of opportunity shuts until the clash with Canada on November 12 and if Sexton goes down in the mean-time, Ireland will still be right where they were last October.