Sunday 25 February 2018

Jackson's chance to prove he belongs

Paddy Jackson is poised to make his first Six Nations start against Scotland on Sunday
Paddy Jackson is poised to make his first Six Nations start against Scotland on Sunday

If form is really so temporary and class really so permanent, wouldn't Lester Piggott still be riding Derby winners?

That's the conundrum Declan Kidney would have been forced to contemplate as he burned the midnight oil and asked himself could he, just when the chips are down, emotionally detach himself from Ireland's greatest out-half of the professional age?

One of the biggest calls of his coaching career must be predicated upon cold-blooded reality, not rose-tinted gut feel.

That Ronan O'Gara, still notably unworthy of a freshly minted contract with either his provincial paymasters or his IRFU employers, was seemingly the only realistic option for Kidney at out-half has prompted apoplexy amongst many Irish rugby supporters.

And so what better way for Kidney to deviate from the perceived norm and pull a rabbit out of the hat, as he has so frequently done in the past – ask messrs Stringer, Quinlan, O'Kelly, O'Driscoll, all of whom have suffered sudden and merciless demotion at the hands of the coach.

None of us should be surprised that the invisible sniper's bullet which crumpled Jonny Sexton in a heap two Sundays ago should have left Ireland in this position in the first place.

For all the over-wrought hand wringing, much of which has demeaned itself in terms of vitriolic personal abuse, have any of us ever contemplated that it is perhaps Paddy Jackson, and not O'Gara, who had most to gain from Sexton's shot hamstring?

The confusion has been all of this Irish management team's making. Remember, when the training squad for last November's internationals was released, there were only two out-halves included – Sexton and O'Gara.

No Ian Madigan. No Ian Keatley. And, intriguingly, given his current status, no Paddy Jackson.


Hence, Kidney deigned to start this most definitive season of his international career with his age-old and ageing pivot as definitively his second-in-command.

In mitigation, Jackson had previously been involved in the fringes of the Irish set-up last season, a factor to which Kidney alluded when selecting the Ulster youngster for his promising stint against the Fijians in Limerick when he was eventually drafted in last November.

Back then, Kidney revealed that it took him just a few minutes on the training field to decide that Jackson had what it took to face Fiji.

We wager this week's ruminations lasted slightly longer and occasioned much debate amongst the Irish management brains trust.

Choosing Jackson offers clarity; the selection of O'Gara would, one presumes, create too much confusion, much of it emanating from the body of a player himself who is hopelessly out of form and, crucially, no longer deemed worthy of the utmost of professional respect from his playing peers. And, per chance, his coaches too.

Kidney sees in Jackson a microcosm of O'Gara, a player who will adhere slavishly to a pronounced system – presumably one less chaotically designed than that which faltered so miserably against England.

"We want to keep it structured," was Jackson's mantra ahead of that Fiji game.

It was clear that he had earned Kidney's trust. Enough to start against Scotland this Sunday? We must wait and see but the runes are pointing that way.

Nevertheless, doubts will persist. It has been Jackson's misfortune that, just as it might have seemed possible for him to edge into clearer contention to start for Ireland, his form has plummeted in recent months.

Operating beneath the shadow of the inestimable Ruan Pienaar for his province, such that he was even dropped for a pivotal Heineken Cup away game in Castres, hasn't helped.

His place-kicking, when he has been called upon to do so, has not been of the required standard, engendering yet more frayed nerves amongst Irish fans, given O'Gara's recent travails from the tee.

For all that, Kidney still trusts him. And this is key: he trusts him more than either Ian – Keatley or Madigan – whose respective temperaments at this level remains untested.

At yesterday's official press conference, assistant coach Les Kiss was making all the right noises about there being a straight fight for the out-half berth but Irish rugby supporters know differently.

Realistically, there is no debate – in terms of either starter or replacement. Kidney clearly delineates little difference between the pair.

Within the camp, there has been a stern introspective debate about the scattergun tactics that cost Ireland so dearly against England – clearly, the players' indiscipline and error-ridden infractions reflected the confusion.

Kidney, under pressure from his leading peer group of players, must now retreat into a more hidebound modus operandi against the limited Scots; such is the perilous nature of this championship campaign.

Caution is the watchword. And, with a team shorn of more than a third of its first-choice starters, Ireland cannot afford to introduce any semblance of indulgence in the pivotal position.

Hence Jackson and/or O'Gara will inculcate a predominantly moribund game-plan, one entirely contrary to the one that disintegrated so rapidly against the English, with territory and retention of possession the key.

This could, of course, be achieved with an out-half more used to attacking the gain line, a la Sexton, but a crisis situation demands a response within limited boundaries.

Ulster created waves when they dumped Ian Humphreys at the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup last season but in hindsight it was not a surprising move at all.

Jackson offered a steelier defensive resolve than Humphreys and a more coherent approach to guiding his side around the field.

That Ireland have restricted their options to just these pair of out-halves is not entirely surprising; the frantic nature of securing back-up to Mike Ross and the indecision in terms of Gordon D'Arcy's replacement undermines all the fine talk of squad development.

The fact remains, for all the hyperbole about Madigan, Jackson is currently in prime position to become Sexton's long-term shadow.

O'Gara remains, for good or ill, a short-term option; should that awful cliche, horses for courses, apply.

Whether he can recapture his glory days could have gone a long way to determining whether his coach's future is also of the short-term variety.

Kidney's career has a better chance of outlasting his one-time protege.

With so many in Irish rugby getting sidetracked by personal hobbyhorses and petty provincial vendettas, the Irish coach is ultimately the one who has to make the final decision.

For him, it cannot be personal. It's all about the business.

Irish Independent

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