Saturday 25 May 2019

Brendan Fanning: Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson neck and neck in race to be Ireland's playmaker of choice

Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson
Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Gentlemen, start your engines. For the first time since Declan Kidney was juggling the names of Ronan O'Gara and Johnny Sexton to see who would fall first into the 10 slot, the race for the Ireland playmaker's jersey is an issue.

It has regularly enough been a feature of the international game here: Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward gave us a soap opera in the late 1970s/early '80s; O'Gara and David Humphreys played out a few interesting scenes in the early noughties; then O'Gara and Sexton in and around the 2011 World Cup was a compelling sideshow. And now Paddy Jackson is challenging the man who has 61 caps for Ireland and three for the Lions, a competitor so single-minded that you wonder sometimes how he will fill the gap when his time comes.

When Sexton (31) was ruled out of the tour to South Africa four months ago, it didn't so much offer Jackson (24) an opportunity as put him on the spot. The Ulster outhalf went on that trip knowing that if he didn't look like he was glad to be there then his challenge to Sexton was done and dusted. Not only did he emerge from the tour clearly in credit, he now comes across like a man who believes his time has come.

Friday night in Scotstoun was a game set up for Ulster to lose. Undermining their stat of three in a row en route to Glasgow was the profligacy in Treviso, which saw them leave behind a bonus point, and the sloppiness against Scarlets in Ravenhill which left loose, until the last minute, a gift that should have been wrapped much sooner.

Ulster were very good here though, and Jackson did lots of things well - not least of which was a feisty defensive game. He was three from four off the tee, on a crap night, which was the icing on a cake that had huge confidence as its bottom tier. He carried himself like a man who believed he would shape the outcome to his liking. And he did. Having gone desperately close in the second half to what would have been a cracking try, a few minutes later he closed the deal on another - which was just that.

While Jackson was lighting up the dark skies in Glasgow, Johnny Sexton was making a lot of people happy in the RDS. Normally he can do that just by being there, but he enhanced it on Friday by scoring a try and coming across initially like a man who hasn't been away for the last four months.

When you looked closer you could see grains of rust though. Sexton had, on 44 minutes, the equivalent of one of those Wimbledon wild things that threaten the pigeons. Despite the conditions though he was very good off the tee, and good enough in general play that for him lasted 70 minutes - more than you would expect on his first night back at work. It would have been 80 but for a binning, the price of a team offence.

Given Sexton's savage competitiveness, the emergence of Jackson as clear and present danger is good for him. And the rest of us. Staying fit has been his primary challenge in recent seasons, a battle he has struggled with.

The perception is that there are a lot of creaking bones in that frame. Now, with the Jackson drone hovering just overhead, Sexton needs to stay on the field, and on his game. The race is on.

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