Sport Rugby

Thursday 22 March 2018

Time to kick the doubters to touch

Jackson has chance to impress Schmidt and reignite career in green jersey

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THE hush will descend and the pressure will grow. All eyes will focus on the 21-year-old red head in the green jersey.

Paddy Jackson's first kick on Saturday won't define his international career, but it could set the tone for a season and his ability to challenge for the Ireland No 10 shirt over the course of the year ahead.

Johnny Sexton's hip and Matt O'Connor's preference for Jimmy Gopperth over Ian Madigan has handed the youngster an opportunity to breathe life into a short, but eventful, Ireland adventure.

Most professional rugby players are still in their provincial academies at this stage of their careers and, in a country where coaches are regularly accused of failing to give young players a chance, Jackson is an anomaly.

Brian McLaughlin, Mark Anscombe and Declan Kidney have shown faith in the young man's abilities and backed him to overcome his early career issues. Now Joe Schmidt is ready to do the same.

If what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, then the Belfast native will be tough as nails by now.

While his contemporaries from underage teams continue to bide their time in the protected confines of the academy, playing British and Irish Cup and the odd Pro12 game, steeling themselves for the limelight ahead, Jackson has had to do all of his growing up in the full glare of the public eye.

He has four Ireland caps and 34 appearances for Ulster. It hasn't always been pretty, but he will be hoping to wear his scars as a badge of honour having come out the other side.


The prodigious fly-half finished last season looking miserable on tour in Toronto. Les Kiss went with Madigan from the off and backed him until the team had dealt with Canada and the result was beyond doubt.

He sent Jackson on for a run with 19 minutes to go. The Ulsterman nailed two conversions and, significantly, experienced his first win in an Ireland jersey.

It was a nice end to an unhappy tour in which his main contribution of note to that point was a rap video he filmed with Simon Zebo that went viral.

He was one of the few players not to be put up for interview through the two weeks and he returned from North America firmly No 3 in the Irish pecking order.

But his province backed him and while Madigan found a new coach opting for experience, his rival was again put front and centre for Ulster.

Ulster coach Anscombe backed him publicly, admitting that he may have begun life at the top too early, but insisting that he remains the future of the province.

"Paddy is a young man that we all have a lot of confidence and faith in," Anscombe said. "Like in life, when you get thrown on to that big stage you are judged and we don't look at the age of that person, we just look at what they do. Paddy has had his critics but he bounces back fairly well."

The New Zealander has been rewarded for his faith with an improved effort from Jackson, whose Pro12 kicking record is a respectable 74pc. He delivered a precise cross-kick for Tommy Bowe's magnificent try against Leicester Tigers in the Heineken Cup and impressed in the remarkable away win in Montpellier, even if his kicking was a little shaky at the Stade Yves-du-Manoir.

By then, he was back sharing those duties with Ruan Pienaar, who spent the early part of the season on duty with the Springboks. The consummate professional in the Ulster No 9 jersey had resisted the lure of the south of France and committed to the province for a further three years. It must have been news that was greeted with mixed emotions by the youngster.

While Pienaar's class and confidence is worth learning from, the Bloemfontein native also shields him from some of the harsher realities of top-level rugby.

The South African's box-kicking relieves plenty of pressure from Jackson's shoulders, while his accuracy from the placed balls also takes the heat off the Ireland international.

It is something that he would prefer he didn't have to deal with, but he is also willing to push his case as he grows in experience.

"I'll be fighting my corner because I want to be kicking," he said of his battle with Pienaar for possession of the tee. "I was playing in the Six Nations (last season) and then lost the spot to Ian. I was thinking, 'I have to have a good start to the season', which I didn't really, 'play well for Ulster and the rest should take care of itself'. I'm still just trying to fine-tune the little bits in my game; trying to always develop."

That fine-tuning will come into sharp focus on Saturday as he gets an early chance to impress Schmidt. His international experience so far has mostly been a negative, but this time last year he made his impression against Fiji and earned the trust of Kidney.

What was particularly noticeable was that he took the ball flat to the gain-line against the islanders, shipping three massive late hits as he released the runner outside him.

His delay of the release and timing of the pass on a miserable November night pointed to great things, but by the time he was facing Leinster at the RDS in the Pro12 final, he had retreated so deep into the pocket that he looked like he might try a drop goal at any moment.


That retreat came from the blows to his confidence he suffered in the international arena after he was propelled in ahead of Ronan O'Gara after Sexton was ruled out of the Six Nations.

His confidence suffered, but he has come back a more impressive figure, according to those in the Ulster camp this year.

"Coming in he was a quiet, shy type of guy who didn't really say too much and didn't control the game too much from a talking point of view," Ulster captain Johann Muller recalled recently.

"In training this season he has been absolutely outstanding in the way that he runs the ship and the forwards. For me as a captain I just basically leave everything to him now because he is capable of doing all those things.

"He is learning and if he continues the growth I have seen in the last 18 months there is a great future for him."

Schmidt will be hoping he can impose that influence on the biggest stage on Saturday.

Then, an international career in its infancy can begin to flourish.

Irish Independent

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