Sunday 18 February 2018

Neil Francis: Paddy Jackson can launch himself in South Africa

There are few tougher places to build your profile than on tour in Springboks' back yard

‘If Paddy Jackson gets the nod, he will have to play, and be good, in all three Tests’. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
‘If Paddy Jackson gets the nod, he will have to play, and be good, in all three Tests’. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Keano was at it again after the Turner's Cross extravaganza last Tuesday against Belarus. "There are other lads who'd be fringe players and would be happy to be fringe players. They don't want the responsibility of being in the starting 11. They will talk about it but they won't do it when they get the opportunities like last night. They'll just go 'maybe I don't want to be in the starting 11 because there is pressure with that'."

The truth has a funny way of hitting you right between the eyes. Keano recanted some of his rhetoric but, I'd say, not that part of the statement. While the scribblers champion fringe players and exhort their virtues, very often their kind words evaporate the moment you taste your first physical contact in Test sport. The romantic notion of playing for your country. . . well, quite often the pressure and responsibility of the occasion in conjunction with playing against a player who is so much bigger, better, faster and smarter can be the end of you. Very few players have had the experience of not doubting themselves at some stage in their Test careers. That warm feeling of selection and belonging can often turn to dry-mouthed uncertainty with half an hour to go before kick-off.

Ireland jet off today to South Africa with half of their starting team remaining behind. The scribblers got their wish and the fringe have got their opportunity to front up. For the players staying behind it is a fundamental moment of uncertainty. They are considered starters because season in, season out they are the best players by dint of their consistency, drive and skill.

Rugby union is one of those sports that rewards courage and excellence with injury. What now for nearly all of the Sandy Lane Eight? Paul McGrath contracts? A 'train when there is no pain' clause? I have empathy for Rob Kearney. Too much to give still, and too young to retire, but his back injury will continually cause problems for the parts of his body which are connected to it. Next season the odds are high he will pull or tear his hamstrings or his calves and will spend a large part of the season on the physio's bench, his quality only shining intermittently.

Our better players are getting injured too often and too seriously. Last Saturday Kearney was a good distance off where we expect him to be. His missed that tackle on Tiernan O'Halloran for Connacht's first try, tough for everyone to take. Kearney has to sit down and watch to see whether the Connacht full-back will come back a Test player and the new starter.

O'Halloran has impressed this season, and the bigger the game the better his performances. The most obvious feature is that he is quick, but he will find that everyone is quick at Test level, even the ball boys. It is the prime indispensable. The fundamental prerequisite. If you are not quick you won't last long; however, being quick doesn't guarantee survival.

I see plenty of full-backs in the squad but I can see them being played at 11, 12 and 13. I can't see Joe Schmidt fiddling with Matt Healy, Craig Gilroy or Ian Madigan at full-back and so O'Halloran looks a good bet for a start in Capetown. Newlands is a very wide pitch. An awful lot of ground to cover and get your positioning right. The Boks have no shortage of pace either and their likely full-back, Willie le Roux, is dangerously unpredictable and has a sparkling imagination. Getting your first cap against Georgia or Canada in Ireland is one thing, debuting against a meaty Springbok side in Capetown. . . well, sin scéal eile. Hesitancy and self-doubt are two characteristics that none of your team-mates want when the whistle blows and you come out of the trenches. I think of all the fringe players, O'Halloran could do best if Schmidt does decide to pick him. O'Halloran's skill levels are very good, his passing is excellent. Next Saturday, though, could be more about Passchendaele than passing.

I figure that Healy won't get a look-in in any of the three Tests. A lot of what Healy does well in the Pro12 can be put down to his undoubted pace. He scores tries because he is a metre quicker than his opponent. He also has a better-than-average change of pace, which is often the key to finding the line rather than just pure pace. Even though Brian Habana is looking for Olympic gold at this moment, South Africa will have somebody just as quick as him.

Calling Healy a speedster is probably an injustice to him. Quite often what distinguished him from others this season was angle perception and speed of thought. The comparisons to Denis Hickie are valid. Hickie was not only lightning quick but was a very clever player. I watched Nehe Milner-Skudder make fools of people in last year's Super Rugby, Rugby Championship and the World Cup. I think there is scope for a small, pacy and dangerous winger on Ireland's wing but Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls will start and Gilroy will provide the cover.

The Paddy Jackson-Madigan situation is soap opera. Me? I think Jackson is just about to launch himself. He is a better game manager than Madigan and now has the nerve, confidence and experience, but somewhere deep inside of Joe's head, I sense he does not want to pick him and I would not be surprised to see Madigan's name at 10 next Thursday.

Jackson has been on the fringe for three seasons and this tour is his springboard to Japan 2019. If he does get the nod he will have to play, and be good, in all three Tests. The shenanigans here will be like Dallas without the oil.

Finally, Jesus Christ did a nifty line in miracles over his three years in the limelight. They will all pale into insignificance if Schmidt can turn Quinn Roux into an international-class second row. This is the lunatic fringe. We have three South Africans in our squad on a tour of South Africa. How do they behave in their native land? How do they explain to their countrymen (South Africans) why they are there? Are there tour rules such as not speaking Afrikaans to each other down the back of the bus? A handy tour - home when it is all finished for die Ierland speler.

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