Jackson's resilience crucial to Ulster's glory drive
THE pre-eminent role Paddy Jackson has had in the affairs of Ulster rugby since his elevation to starting out-half has inevitably invited comparisons with the giants of the past – most notably the legendary David Humphreys.
When Jackson was parachuted into Ulster's starting team for their Heineken Cup semi-final last season it was an astonishing gamble by then coach Brian McLaughlin.
It was his first taste of Heineken Cup action in over four months. He acquitted himself well enough to keep his place in the team for the final ... when it all went wrong for the then 20-year-old.
He lasted 46 minutes of the game against Leinster before being mercifully called ashore for the more mature Ian Humphreys, the man he had usurped.
Less than 12 months have passed since then. In that time Jackson cemented his place as Ulster's first-choice out-half and he became an Ireland senior international player, starting the last three games of Ireland's Six Nations Championship.
It is not too far a stretch to suggest that Ulster's prospects in their Heineken Cup semi-final against Saracens on Saturday night will be shaped by how Jackson responds to the pressures of playing at Twickenham and facing up to Saracens' choice at out-half – either Owen Farrell or Charlie Hodgson.
It's been a steep learning curve for the 21-year-old.
For certain, he still has much to learn and there is an awful lot more left on his development. He isn't, for example, naturally showy like Ian Madigan.
Neither does he yet have the ability to run a game like the older Humphreys brother. That final attribute will develop over time. He is still at the embryonic stage of his career.
What he is, though, is solid without the flashiness of his rivals. He is also, Ulster captain Johann Muller revealed, the true leader of the Ulster team.
"Basically I run out in front of Paddy at the start of the game. That's it. Paddy is the leader of this team," said Muller.
"Paddy runs this team, he is an outstanding leader and he puts in a huge amount of work week in and week out, analysing videos, making sure the calling system is in place.
"From a captain's point of view it is the greatest thing in the world that you can run out there and you have got 100pc confidence in this guy's ability
"In rugby your No 9 and No 10 run your team and Paddy has done an absolutely brilliant job.
"You know, we get an email every Tuesday night from Paddy telling us exactly what the calls that week are going to be, where we will be doing what on the field, and that takes a special person."
Jackson's mental strength and ability to recover from set-backs are some of the attributes Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has been impressed by since taking over.
While some might have feared for Jackson after he was thrown in at the deep end of the international pool by Declan Kidney at Murrayfield, Anscombe had no such worries.
"He is a tough little character," he said. "He has been beaten up at times by people in the media but he bounces back and the fact is in all this, he is still the same person and he is still the same footballer we think he is, he can play at the top."
Jackson's evolution since last season's Heineken Cup final engenders huge confidence among his team-mates, according to both Muller and Anscombe.
"The whole squad backs him 100pc, and the management as well. When you have the confidence of people behind you, it will mean that bit extra," said Muller.
What has most impressed Anscombe is Jackson's ability to respond positively to set-backs, especially those experienced on the field of play. It is, according to the coach, a sign of maturity that belies his tender years.
"Every individual is going to have bad games, but it's important how you bounce back and every time Paddy has been knocked down he has bounced back perfectly," said Anscombe.
"He is only 21 but a great attribute for a No 10 is to be able to flush mistakes, poor calls or a mis-kick and get on with your game because you can't do anything about what's happened.
"What you can do is control what is in front of you and I think he has shown he has got that ability."
Jackson's calm assurance outside the peerless Ruan Pienaar will be imperative to Ulster's chances of toppling Saracens this weekend.
Ulster have wobbled a little from their early-season form. The hope is that Saturday night's win over Leinster is the fillip they need to rediscover that form if they are to progress.