Monday 19 March 2018

Tony Ward: Jackson edges past Madigan in Six Nations grand plan

Ulster No 10 set for Sexton back-up role as he leads push for Euro glory

Paddy Jackson, Ulster, is tackled by Jordi Murphy, Leinster
Paddy Jackson, Ulster, is tackled by Jordi Murphy, Leinster
Alain Rolland
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

They didn't turn up in Dublin so we knew there'd be a Belfast reaction but, even by Ravenhill 'Stand up' standards, what transpired on Friday night was old-time inter-provincial rugby at its scintillating best.

Ulster weren't just good, they were brilliant while Munster, though slow out of the blocks, delivered a typically gutsy performance high on endeavour if lacking once again in precision.

Both coaches should be pleased with the attitude ahead of round five of the Heineken Cup. Rob Penney clearly has a lot more on his plate, with injuries to Cathal Sheridan and Damien Varley, on top of Conor Murray and Mike Sherry, the players they replaced.

It looks like it will be a case of the two Duncans filling the void, with ex-CBC schools international Williams and former Glenstal powerhouse Casey coming in at scrum-half and hooker respectively.

Casey made a massive impact when he came on for the experienced Varley, who again had been delivering a fine performance. The former Wasps and Garryowen hooker is a hugely under-rated player in a position where Munster turn out quality operators by the truck load.

The fact that Munster deserved to take something on the long trek home, but still left empty-handed tells you everything you need to know about this Ulster performance.

This was at the other end of the spectrum to the RDS. Here was Ulster delivering the type of performance befitting the quality of this squad.

The frustration for coach Mark Anscombe, and indeed every Ulster follower, is their inconsistency -- not just from match to match but often from quarter to quarter.

If they can fix that, then the European title they crave is well within their compass. The quality and depth of this squad is on a par with the best in Europe -- up with Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse.

In the next fortnight, they have the opportunity to make a real statement against against Montpellier and Leicester Tigers. It is no longer acceptable to blow hot and cold.

Bear in mind players of the quality of Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris -- Lions one and all -- have still to return to bolster the squad.

The decision to run with Ruan Pienaar as the main goalkicker is sensible on two counts. It gives the brilliant Springbok the added responsibility he relishes while at the same time freeing up Paddy Jackson to concentrate on his already considerable playmaking ability.

The more I see of Jackson, the more impressive he looks. When he plays well, so do Ulster.

He still needs to inject a little more conviction to his tactical kicking but beyond that he is fast becoming the near-perfect link that the modern game requires.

Right now he has to be marginally ahead of Ian Madigan in the race to fill the back-up slot to Johnny Sexton for the Six Nations.

I would be astonished if Ireland coach Joe Schmidt didn't view recent evidence the same way. It's not that Madigan is playing badly but Jackson is seizing the responsibility for Ulster that comes with wearing David Humphreys' old shirt.

Jared Payne may still be some nine months away from Ireland eligibility but, if his chosen position is to be outside-centre, then on all evidence, the New Zealand-born 28-year-old's residency qualification is looking pretty well timed.

The other key performance at Ravenhill was delivered by Chris Henry, and it too was timely.

Sean O'Brien's absence is a massive blow for Ireland's Six Nations hopes, but the Friday night battle between Henry and Peter O'Mahony at the breakdown -- albeit each filling different roles for their sides -- was as fascinating as it was revealing of two players surely destined to pack down either side of Jamie Heaslip for Ireland next month.

A back-row of O'Mahony, Henry and Heaslip to face the Scots looks the right fit for me.

From Munster's perspective this was a performance that will do them no harm at all in the build-up to the Heineken Cup fortnight ahead.

Of course there are still undeniable problems in creative and attacking terms but when it comes to getting down and getting dirty, rolling up the sleeves from one to 23, this is a group worthy of wearing the red and the proud tradition it represents.

Most encouraging for head coach Penney were big performances at Ravenhill from relatively new kids on the block Casey, Ivan Dineen and Dave Foley, while out-half Ian Keatley deserves special mention for the courage of his performance in adversity. It would have been so easy in the circumstances -- with four or five kicks going astray -- to drop the head and retreat into his shell but he showed real guts, and deserves enormous credit for his central part in the second-half rally.

I have no doubt the same level of performance will be reproduced at Ravenhill in four days' time but it will be a week or so on from that again when the real Ulster, consistent Ulster, must stand up. Come away from Leicester with a win and everything is possible.

Last Friday's head-to-head showed Irish inter-provincial rugby at its very best.

The challenge now for victor and vanquished is to kick on.

Whatever else, the dress rehearsal could scarcely have been any better... a classic of our times.


The folly of the impasse set to cripple northern hemisphere rugby is best summed up by Geoff Irvine, chairman of Championship Rugby, which represents England's second division clubs.

"It's scandalous but it's just typical of the way this game is at the moment. We ask Premiership Rugby every year if they want to go to 14 teams (from 12) and every year they tell us no. But now all of a sudden, because there is the mire over Europe, they're talking about going to 16 (to include all four Welsh Regions). It's nonsense."

Little elaboration necessary.


Somewhere in the aftermath of Friday's Ravenhill belter, I heard a comment criticising the referee. It left me speechless.

Alain Rolland was on top of his game and clearly central to the Belfast spectacle we all enjoyed.

Rolland was outstanding in law interpretation, use of technology (TMO) and -- more than anything -- in his assertive interaction with the players.

Rolland is quite simply the best referee this country has ever produced, and only when the soon-to-retire whistler is gone, will he be fully appreciated.

Enjoy him while you can, because when he blows for the last time the game is going to be much the poorer for his retirement.

Irish Independent

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