Sport Rugby

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Tony Ward: Disaster awaits if Jackson tries to play like Sexton

Ireland debutants Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall get ready for their big Scottish test
Ireland debutants Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall get ready for their big Scottish test

WE may be dealing in different time frames, but your Test debut is your Test debut no matter what the circumstances surrounding it.

I will feel for Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall when the two young debutants awake in the team hotel on Princes Street in Edinburgh tomorrow morning.

Talk to any former international and they will tell you that their maiden run passed by in a blink.

I too can identify with that, but push me on the build-up and it makes for memories best forgotten.

When you wake – assuming a halfdecent night's sleep – naturally what lies ahead just a mile or so down the road at Murrayfield is the first thing on your mind.

You are feeling sorry for yourself, nervous as a kitten, and riddled with self-doubt as to your right to be involved at all at this level. It is a natural thought process, but it is the most critical battle to be fought and won before kick-off.

It gets easier as the day unfolds and various meetings and conversations take place.

That period upon waking, the final hour in the build-up, plus all the protocol surrounding the anthems, represent the biggest emotional/ psychological hurdles to be overcome.


The rest should be a doddle – and I don't make that observation flippantly. When the opening whistle finally blows, it is pure relief because you are back doing what comes naturally and the reason you are where you are in the first place.

Only by meeting that mental challenge head on can you hope to perform to the level required.

At international level, the pace is quicker, the tackling harder, the gaps smaller but the pleasure is in being there and in testing yourself with and against the best.

I remember being selected for my first run – also against the Scots – back in 1978 and I recall Tom Grace, now treasurer of the IRFU, congratulating me, but with the proviso “the easy part's being picked Wardy, the important part's in justifying it”.

That is the challenge facing both young Ulstermen now. They have been picked because the head coach believes they are up to it, because their form justifies it and because they both fit into a plan of Declan Kidney's making.

The personal challenge each faces is in convincing themselves they are worthy of selection at the highest level. That psychological conundrum is the biggest test of all.

Had either Jonny Sexton or Gordon D'Arcy been available, I'm not sure either of tomorrow's debutants would have been picked. The absence of both established internationals paved the way for the young Ulster duo to come in as a 10/12 package.

On my first appearance, I had Paul McNaughton as fellow debutant wearing 12 alongside and three more – Mick Fitzpatrick, Donal Spring and John O'Driscoll – in the pack. That represented a third of a new team on a journey into the unknown. For the record, we won.

By contrast, Jackson and Marshall will be surrounded by players who have been there, done that.

My advice to both is much the same as that proffered by the head coach for public consumption in midweek: “Be yourself”.

The reason Kidney has taken this bold step – apart from the injury bind – is because he trusts in what he sees.

He likes the chemistry and changed dynamic these young men bring to training and to preparation.

It is a gamble and a considerable one. If it works, then a new era could be under way and this management's tenure extended.

The key for Jackson is to do nothing any differently than he does for Ulster. He is not a string puller/ game manager a la Sexton or O'Gara at their tactical best. For Ulster, he is primarily a link and that should, I hope, be the extent of his ambition tomorrow.

If he does the simple things well then, in being true to himself and the reason he was picked in the first place, he will inspire confidence in everyone around him.

Any attempt at running ahead of walking, and potential disaster awaits. Great Test players don't hatch, they evolve.

By now, the excitement upon team selection should have dissipated and reality for what lies ahead kicked in.

For Jackson, that means accepting the responsibility that comes with goalkicking. Once you know you are saddled with that extra burden, then dealing with it is so much easier.

The only problem I ever had in that regard, and I know I speak for Ollie Campbell here too, was when we both lined out together for Ireland in the early ’80s. We were both reasonably proficient at kicking goals but with each other to fall back upon a negative mindset of “well if I don't kick it, he will” accompanied us into matches.

Since his selection to succeed Sexton on Wednesday, Jackson knows that responsibility lies 100pc with him, and that is as it should be.

Has he the ability to step into the master's shoes? Yes. Has he the desire? Yes. Has he the temperament? That we don't know, but come 4.0 or thereabouts tomorrow afternoon all will be revealed.

In the meantime, expect a nation to hold its collective breath. The Scots expect, so do we. Something's got to give. Take Ireland by six.


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