A coming-of-age story
Paddy Jackson has come through Heineken Cup meltdown tougher and wiser – now he’s ready to make statement in Murrayfield cauldron
Declan Kidney didn't look into his heart when he opted to overlook Ronan O'Gara and plump for Paddy Jackson to help dig Ireland out of a championship crevice in Murrayfield this Sunday. He looked into his mind.
He saw not an uncapped out-half, the youngest prospective championship debutant at 10 since Mick Quinn against France 40 years ago, nor the freewheelin' kid whose viral videos rival those of Simon Zebo.
Instead, when the 53-year-old coach looked into the eyes of the 21-year-old player, he might as well have been looking at a mirror image, for here was someone who paraded an attribute that so aptly represents Kidney's mindset.
"He's dealt with adversity," relates a steely-eyed Kidney, averring specifically to last season's Heineken Cup final meltdown.
"It's the first thing you have to learn. Out-halves get all the blame or all the glory. And you never deserve either.
"You're doing your job, that's how I see the role of the out-half. That's something that was given to me a long time ago and something that I've lived on ever since in terms of that position more than any other one.
"And he's coped with that adversity. It's the first thing an out-half has to do. I've seen Jonny Sexton have to do it and Ronan O'Gara have to do it. David Humphreys had to do it."
Kidney himself had to do it. In certain quarters of Cork, he is still – incorrectly – blamed for tossing away the 1977 Schools Senior Cup final while playing for Pres against fierce rivals Christians.
At one stage in the piece, Kidney, playing at out-half, attempted to relieve some pressure by taking a quick throw near his own line. He was swallowed by voracious cover and the opposition scored.
It wasn't a defining moment in the game, but for many it was a defining moment for the player. "If Paddy just goes out and does his job it will be up to the other 14 to do their job around him more than anything else," says Kidney, attempting to avert the pressure from just one man.
"That would be my wish for him, just go out and back himself. I talk a lot about them being themselves when they're out on the pitch and that's what I mean by it, that he just goes out and does what he does and enjoys himself."
As is normal for most international coaches, particularly when injuries intervene, Kidney has opted to perm particular combinations and hence Ulster benefits. Luke Marshall also earns his debut at inside centre, with Tom Court to pack down with Rory Best.
In championship fare, it represents the northern province's highest exposure since the old Five Nations and the days when the current Ulster director of rugby Humphreys ran the show from 10 in his own inimitable style.
Ominously, Ireland lost to Scotland on that day in 1999 when six Ulstermen lined out in Murrayfield; tyros like Jackson and Marshall were still in primary school and will thus remain blissfully unaware of such relatively ancient history.
Asked to name someone he might have admired from his teenage years, one spies his captain Jamie Heaslip and it is impossible not to mouth indiscreetly, "he's still a teenager!"
Jackson remains unabashed. "Probably Jonny Wilkinson," he says. "And Ronan."
The same Ronan who he has now so spectacularly elbowed from the frontline. O'Gara was still apparently running at out-half in training just a day earlier; the selection has been as sudden as it has been surprising.
O'Gara, contrasting a public image that has undoubtedly deteriorated in some quarters the closer he nears the end of such a stellar career, was the first to congratulate his usurper. "That was very nice of him," appreciates Jackson. "He didn't have much to say. He just said, 'well done, I'm happy for you'. It was very nice of him."
Those in Jackson's position often must ferry the most selfish of genes. He himself unashamedly reveals when he first harboured real designs of featuring in this championship.
"It was probably when I was watching the England game and saw Jonny go down," he says, opening a window into the fiercely combative, opportunistic spirit that rages amongst these new Ireland players. "I sort of sat up in my seat a little bit. I had a game for Ulster the next week and had to focus on that. But I knew the position was up for grabs and I'm glad I'm getting the opportunity now."
Such an opportunity seemed quite a distance away following his self-confessed implosion during the Heineken Cup final last May; the healing process since then hasn't always been smooth, but it has featured more positive experiences than negative.
"I learned a lot from it," he readily insists. "It was a great experience. Obviously things didn't go very well but I did learn from it. You learn more from your mistakes rather than after having an absolute blinder."
Hence he will admit to nerves before this Sunday's game; it's just that there will be fewer butterflies caroming about his person.
It will be carped that Jackson has none of the experience required. An outsider's view, Scotland's coach, Scott Johnson – who is from a land where age is never an issue – is pertinent.
"Paddy Jackson is a good player," the Australian says. "Paddy has done very well at provincial level; he's a threat.
"In two or three years' time we may be talking about Paddy Jackson being a quality player in world rugby, but at the moment nobody knows who he is really.
"Sometimes what happens is that people expect the known names to be a massive, massive loss. But what people probably don't know is the 'no names' and how good they are."
Jackson aims to make a name for himself on Sunday. "I've been waiting for this since I was a kid," he enthuses.
Ultimately, it wasn't that difficult for Kidney to decide that innocence would trump experience. The difficult part will be Jackson proving his coach right.