Sunday 18 March 2018

Tony Ward: Jackson quickly becoming a genuine rival to Sexton

Maul legislation an illogical blight on game that World Rugby must tackle

Jonathan Sexton and Paddy Jackson of Ireland during squad training
Jonathan Sexton and Paddy Jackson of Ireland during squad training
Ireland's Paddy Jackson. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I'll stop short of saying they've repaid the debt in full, but certainly those given the chance to make good the loss in Murrayfield did so to telling effect. Rome wasn't built in a day, and certainly this squad has still a bit to go to get back where it was on that memorable afternoon in Chicago.

Watching the pre-match warm-up in the Stadio Olimpico, it was clear through the level of intensity at the breakdown that a wounded Irish animal was sending a statement of intent to the Italians.

Whatever else, there would be no bus driver in the firing line this time around.

Instead, it was the Azzurri on the receiving end of a shellacking. For a home team, this was as bad as it gets.

Nine well manufactured tries to one dodgy penalty try (which included a yellow card to Donnacha Ryan) for attempting to defend a rugby law that transcends all logic.

I need somebody from World Rugby to explain to me how, other than bringing down a driving maul, you are meant to defend what is effectively a seven-man obstruction tactic.

And why is dragging a maul to the ground considered dangerous? I was not in the forward trenches but in a playing career of decent longevity, I stood right beside a lot of mauls, and I cannot recall a single serious injury through a rumble going to ground.

Yet these days, a maul to the corner is a first-class ticket to seven points and a yellow card.

Short of putting the lineout fetcher immediately to ground, how do you defend what is clearly indefensible under current legislation?

It is a nonsense and a blight on the game. And yes, Ireland use it as effectively as anybody - because "them's the rules"!

That aside, right from the opening series of scrums, the Irish mindset was clear. In a war of attrition there was only going to be one winner. The relentless intensity paid dividends, and as early as the half-hour mark Ireland were out of sight.

11 February 2017; Jamie Heaslip of Ireland during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Italy and Ireland at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Stand-in captain Jamie Heaslip made some brave calls, not least in going to the corner when Ireland were reduced to 14 men and when taking the three points on offer seemed the more prudent option.

Ireland were clearly determined not to let Rory Best's absence deter them, and Niall Scannell stepped up seamlessly on a debut to remember. Joe Schmidt trades on fitness and form - and again, his call was justified.

Ryan may not have been bursting away for tries a lá CJ Stander, but it is notable how many of his forward colleagues stepped up their performance from the previous week - particularly Devin Toner and Heaslip. Ryan is that mongrel forward with bark and bite.

All three back-rowers were immense.

Schmidt faces a tough call between Jack McGrath and the rejuvenated Cian Healy for the No 1 shirt, but beyond that Best for Scannell will be the only change up front, assuming every one is fit and firing.

Behind the scrum, Conor Murray was back on track in every aspect, while Paddy Jackson continues to grow into the chief playmaking role at this level. Because we lost in Murrayfield his contribution was undervalued (not by Schmidt I might add). He is now genuine opposition to Johnny Sexton when the latter is fully fit.

It will be a tough call on Jackson if he is demoted to the bench against the French, yet in the circumstances it seems the right decision.

I say that with a lot less conviction than I would have a few weeks ago. South Africa was the turning point or coming of age for Jackson: he is now the real deal in his own right.

I like it that Schmidt said he would look at the two against each other in training before making any decision. That is pragmatic judgement and the right thing to say. The landscape has shifted and Jackson's feelings very much matter.

He is a class ten whose impact and presence grows with each game. Make no mistake, there is yet another out-half duel developing.

Rome , Italy - 11 February 2017; Keith Earls of Ireland goes over to score his side's first try during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Italy and Ireland at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Beyond that Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw were all on fire, while Simon Zebo still fails to get the credit he deserves.

When it really mattered in the early stages and Ireland were looking to lay down the tone, it was Zebo who made it happen. Right from the opening chase and catch of Murray's first well-placed bomb it was Zebo retrieving possession.

So what if he celebrates over-exuberantly at times? He plays with a smile and an air of unpredictability in his step.

Much like Schmidt, I believe that left wing (with a licence to roam) is his most effective position, leaving Earls (brilliant on Saturday), Andrew Trimble and now Craig Gilroy (by way of that amazing hat-trick from another Zebo-like talent) vying for the No 14 shirt in that order.

Rob Kearney was relatively quiet in Rome, and now it looks as though he will miss the rest of the championship with a bicep injury.

If he is indeed ruled out, then I hope Schmidt turns to Connacht's Tiernan O'Halloran as the last line of defence, and not Zebo in a switch.

Two final quick points.

Firstly, it was great to see Ian Keatley get a late run and another cap after all he's been through. His attitude is exemplary.

But what I enjoyed most was seeing Ireland tap and go (leading to try number nine) with time up when the easy option was to kick the ball dead.

Whatever else, we're back in the chase.

Irish Independent

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