Murphy backing Jackson – but Madigan to get his shot
The prize may ultimately be a spot on the Ireland bench, but the competition remains fierce.
Johnny Sexton, fitness permitting, will lead Joe Schmidt’s backline at the World Cup. However, the battle behind him is heating up. Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan have been vying for the role since Ronan O’Gara’s retirement in 2013, although Ian Keatley briefly interjected during the last Six Nations.
The Ulster pivot got the nod for the first of the four warm-up games last weekend and can be happy with his general play, but a return of four successful kicks from seven attempts off the tee opens the door for his rival.
Kicking coach Richie Murphy confirmed yesterday that Madigan will be given a chance in the No 10 shirt during the warm-up games and it is likely to come sooner rather than later as Sexton works his way back to full fitness.
Murphy has full faith in Jackson’s ability to work out the kinks in his game and blamed some of the issues he encountered on it being the first match of the season.
But chances are few and far between and, with Sexton most likely due for a start against Wales on August 29, an accurate return from Madigan could tip the balance in his favour.
The Leinster player also demonstrated once again his ability to cover more positions in his impressive centre cameo last Saturday.
“Paddy did well. He was assured. He ran the game plan in the manner we wanted it to be run and defended pretty well. His passing game was quite sharp,” Murphy said.
“Some of his kicking was very good, but there were a couple of loose ones there as well. He would be disappointed with that first kick for instance, but I think he put his hand up and is definitely an option for selection.
“We don’t want to miss any kicks. He was a bit disappointed after the game, he kicked four from seven and that needs to be just a little bit higher.
“There’s a couple of things we’re working on; we worked on a few bits today again and he’s in a good place. Before the game he struck the ball so well, so it’s just a matter of getting the body right, getting his heart-rate down and sticking to the process. We’ll get him right between now and the big ones.”
Murphy gave a positive update on Sexton’s condition as he enjoys his return to these shores after two seasons in France.
“He’s going well, he looks very strong at the moment, his targets in the gym have been pretty good,” he said. “He’s been on the pitch and he’s been training away, looking pretty sharp.
“He’s in a good place, happy to be home with his family who are delighted to be back in Dublin and he’s settling back nicely into Irish life.
“He could feature this week, but if it’s not this week, it will be a couple of weeks’ time.
“We know the players pretty well, so, with different guys, you can sort of say: ‘Two games will get him ready to play. This guy will need three games. This guy will need one and this guy needs a break... and then he is really sort of match fit.
“It’s an individual process and what we have to try and do is match that with putting decent combinations together.”
Tommy O’Donnell’s hip injury was a reminder to players and management of how fleeting an opportunity this is, but Murphy said they can’t focus on that as they play their remaining three warm-ups.
“It’s pretty horrific. You see someone who has given everything that he’s got over the last five or six weeks. Tommy’s attitude to training, his professionalism, was incredible, fantastic. His work-rate is second to none. He was going for this all-out and it’s terrible,” he said.
“We just go back and pick a team, the team that we feel is right for the next game. We’ll try and look after Tommy as best we can, but we can’t spend time thinking about that now. We have to move on and get this team ready for Scotland this week and go from there.”
Meanwhile, the Scots have picked a strong 25-man squad for Saturday’s meeting at the Aviva Stadium and will be led by Glasgow’s classy scrum-half Henry Pyrgos.
Scotland (squad v Ireland) – Backs: D Fife, S Hidalgo-Clyne, P Horne, R Jackson, S Lamont, H Pyrgos (capt), T Seymour, G Tonks, R Vernon, T Visser, D Weir. Forwards: J Barclay, H Blake, F Brown, B Cowan, M Cusack, D Denton, A Dell, G Gilchrist, R Grant, J Hamilton, R Harley, S McInally, G Reid, J Welsh.