Tony Ward: Paddy Jackson now posing a real threat to Sexton's throne
Published 03/05/2016 | 02:30
The match of the weekend took place in the Kingspan Stadium where the atmosphere was electric as Ulster emphatically dispatched the disappointing Leinster challenge.
Much like Connacht losing in Treviso, this is a badly-timed blow to Leinster confidence and morale. Fortunately, it is Treviso next for them at the RDS, where victory will get back on track and clinch a home semi-final.
It was a game full of intrigue, with Jared Payne and Paddy Jackson re-iterating their respective cases at full-back and out-half respectively.
Payne is to the manor born in the last line, while Jackson was on fire against the incumbent number 10 Johnny Sexton, who didn't play badly at all. That said were it a final trial, this was Jackson and the Whites' day.
The 24-year-old is a multi-talented footballer who has lost out to greater involvement at national level because of his lack of versatility. He is an outside half and a starting out-half at that so I appreciate Joe Schmidt's dilemma.
The case for Payne (above) at full-back is more clearcut but certainly, on the basis of last Saturday's tour de force, there is a new challenger to Sexton's throne and that challenge is very real.
What we're witnessing is Jackson asserting his presence as playmaker-in-chief with Ruan Pienaar now his half-back partner rather than protector and shield.
What the former Methody starlet has in abundance is courage - mental and physical. He is seldom phased and he has clearly learned a lot from that sobering Heineken Cup final experience of 2012.
Quite apart from the weighting, the precision and the accuracy to his passing is down to timing. The ability, through peripheral vision, to commit the covering player to the tackle rather than allowing the drift is courage personified and that the Ulster pivot has in abundance.
Mind you, his strength in the tackle - with Ian Madigan on the receiving end - followed by that 70-metre sprint to the try line made for the icing on this particular cake.
Make no mistake, the best of Jackson is yet to come.
Apart from Sexton's consistency, two of the better performances for Leinster came from Ben Te'o and Rhys Ruddock. Beyond that and their solid set-piece I would struggle to pick out others who impressed.
George Clancy called both the yellow card and penalty try appropriately in my view, while Luke Fitzgerald will have to learn the art of subtlety even when needs must. Ultimately it cost Leinster the game.
Going into last weekend's penultimate round of the Pro12, Newport Gwent Dragons were the only team left with nothing to play for.
Now as 'squeaky-bum Saturday' approaches, when all six games will be played concurrently, Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh (barring a mathematical miracle) have joined the Dragons in a trio of teams with nothing on the line.
With an Italian presence guaranteed in the Champions Cup, we have the perpetual basement battle between Zebre and Treviso to see which of the two poorest teams will emerge for six guaranteed thumpings in the following season's Europe's top tier.
Read more here:
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Whatever about the Champions League embracing the top four finishers in the Premier League for example, what we have in rugby is the team finishing 11th of 12 close to 50 points behind the team likely to finish sixth and qualifying 'on merit'. You couldn't make it up. It is plain daft.
Anyway on the basis that Zebre clash with the Dragons and Treviso's trip to the RDS has a fascination all of its own for Italian fans, it means nine of the 12 teams have something to play for in the sprint up the final straight.
There are five - Glasgow, Connacht, Leinster, Ulster and the Scarlets - playing for the four play-off places in the Pro12, with the first three realistically playing for the semi-finals with home comforts attached. Beyond that it is Munster and the Ospreys battling it out for sixth place and the final Champions Cup spot.
I'm going for Glasgow, Leinster, Connacht, Ulster, Scarlets, Munster and Zebre to qualify in that order for Champions Cup, bringing a full Irish complement based totally on meritocracy for the first time.
Despite the many and varied problems bedevilling Munster Rugby right now, I always thought they ahd a good run-in, with Edinburgh in Cork and the Scarlets in Limerick.
The Edinburgh leg has been put to rest and I expect the European deal to be complete in front of a significant crowd at Thomond Park on Saturday. Hard to believe that a Munster team aspiring to finish sixth in the Pro12 will be deemed a success but that is the reality right now.
If Champions Cup fixtures turn into Challenge Cup for 2016/17, the optimism surrounding the Rassie Erasmus appointment will do little to control the fuel being added to an already raging fire. That said, I do expect Munster to prevail and finish the season with that ever essential win.
Ulster's abundance of foreign riches a worry for Nucifora
Anyone watching Wasps this season in the English Premiership or Champions Cup cannot but have been impressed with the man wearing the No 15 shirt. Charles Piutau is somewhat unique in that he chose to come to Europe - and specifically to Ulster - at a time when his All Blacks career was taking off.
New Zealand folk thought it was an April Fools' joke when on that date in 2015, just ahead of the World Cup, he announced his deal with Ulster as and from the 2016/17 season. He has been the catalyst for Wasps' new edge in attack this season.
The former Tongan and New Zealand U-20 player, who also represented the New Zealand Sevens and racked up 14 appearances for the All Blacks, is box office ... and yet?
Far be it for me not to welcome a player of that calibre to these shores, but I just wonder how counter-productive his presence might prove to Irish rugby at the highest level. Specifically I am thinking of the impact it might have on Jared Payne.
Excluding the players who started last Saturday, Ulster could field a full-back and three-quarter line made up of Piutau, Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding and Craig Gilroy.
While Piutau can also comdortably play at centre or on the wing, it smacks of a problem in the making for David Nucifora.