Paddy Jackson can bounce back into top gear, says Mark Anscombe
ULSTER coach Mark Anscombe has no doubts that out-half Paddy Jackson will put a difficult Irish international debut behind him and bounce back a better, stronger player.
The Kiwi is keen to help hasten that process, too. He has a 21-year-old son, Gareth, who plays in the same position for Auckland Blues and, as a professional coach and the father of a promising young player, Anscombe appreciates better than anyone the demands of the high-profile No 10 position and the importance of encouragement to those asked to wear that jersey.
Thus, the 21-year-old Jackson, who missed three of his four attempts off the tee in Sunday afternoon's 12-8 Six Nations defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield, will line out at fly-half for Ulster in Friday night's Pro12 home clash with Benetton Treviso (7.05).
And crucially he, rather than his half-back partner Ruan Pienaar, will be Ulster's goal-kicker in that match.
That, Anscombe insisted, was a decision made by Ulster rather than one imposed on them by under-fire Ireland coach Declan Kidney or anyone within the IRFU in Dublin.
"We offered it," Anscombe replied when asked if it had been his choice. "He has kicked well for us this year."
Explaining why the youngster had been relieved of the responsibility of kicking Ulster's goals, the coach continued: "There's a reason why we changed at the time. Paddy's form dipped a little and the fact is that Ruan's a weapon for us. He has the ability to kick goals from 55 metres; Paddy does not. What was happening was that Ruan would get one or two kicks a game from 50-55 metres and he wasn't getting them.
"We weren't giving him a chance to get them by throwing him the odd ball in a game. The best way for a goal-kicker to be on song is to get into a rhythm.
"Ruan is an outstanding goal-kicker and he has a range that's a damned sight longer than Paddy's. To get full advantage of that, we believed that having him kick regularly would help him."
Pienaar has had the job since taking over during the 27-19 home win against Leinster on December 21 after Jackson missed two of his first three penalty attempts.
In the wake of his 25pc success rate against the Scots at the weekend, there have been fears that his confidence would suffer further. Anscombe is mindful of the danger and determined to give Jackson all the help he can. It's empathy mixed with reality, though.
"That's the thing that happens in sport; you're either a hero or you're not. The fact is we're all judged on performances," Anscombe insisted.
But turning the clock back to highlight Jackson's impressive recovery following a nightmarish experience at Twickenham in last May's Heineken Cup final, the coach stressed: "The fact is that he got thrown into the semi-final/final of last year's Heineken Cup and people made a meal out of that.
"But he bounced back. He's a pretty resilient sort of fella. Look, he did some good things at the weekend. He's only 21, he's learning, his game's still growing and we've got the utmost time for Paddy.
"He's a great kid, he works hard and I believe he's got a fine future ahead of him. We've got to be supportive of that. We're really grateful that we've got him back for this Friday night and hopefully we can get him back on the horse to do the business for us. He's very much a key ingredient of our team."
Revealing that he spoke briefly to Jackson, who rejoined the Ulster group yesterday, Anscombe reported the young half-back had been in fine fettle.
"He's a chirpy sort of guy, bubbly and resilient, so he bounces back pretty quickly," he said. Although Anscombe was unwilling to speculate on what the remainder of this season's Six Nations championship may hold for Jackson, he expressed the hope that he will get a further opportunity to prove himself. That, he feels, is what he deserves.
"I don't know what their thinking is; I don't know what the progress is on Jonny Sexton. But if Jonny Sexton's not right for the next Test (against France in Dublin on March 9), you'd think it would be pretty hard on Paddy if he wasn't to be given a second chance," he said.
Ulster must win Friday night's meeting with the Italians if they are to steady the ship after losing three of their last five Pro12 fixtures and seeing their 11-point lead at the top of the table has been trimmed to just three.
But with Treviso having hammered Munster 34-10 at Stadio di Monigo where they scored five tries last Sunday – and having beaten Ulster on their most recent trip to Ravenhill – the coach knows a home win is no formality.
Anscombe has been left to curse his side's bad luck after it was confirmed that Paddy Wallace's season has been ended by a serious injury.
Wallace requires surgery on a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament to his left knee following the game against Glasgow last Friday evening.
The injury leaves a question mark over the 34-year-old continuing a long distinguished career.