Monday 19 March 2018

Nothing fishy in Jackson's aim to reel in out-half rivals

Paddy Jackson firmly believes he can battle by right to become Ireland's first-choice
Paddy Jackson firmly believes he can battle by right to become Ireland's first-choice
David Kelly

David Kelly

If the last World Cup taught us one abiding lesson, it was that although a professional player has to be prepared to do anything to succeed, sometimes even a player who hasn't been prepared to do anything can become a world champion.

The story of how Stephen Donald catapulted himself from a leisurely fishin' and drinkin' holiday to nailing the kick that ultimately secured the Webb Ellis trophy for the All Blacks is a fabled affair.

At once, it demonstrated how fate - in this case a ruinous series of injuries to Kiwi out-halves - can intervene to make a mockery of plans that have been laid down years in advance.

Donald, who had even deleted coach Graham Henry's number from his phone, was knocking back beers and contemplating fish barbecues when he was summoned to Auckland to sit on the bench as fellow pivots dropped like ninepins.


Like Dan Carter, the pre-eminence of the three wounded victims who ultimately ushered in unlikely hero Donald, Jonathan Sexton is the nonpareil ten in his national side.

Paddy Jackson, until his return from injury late last term, had been fourth choice before edging ahead of Ian Keatley after the latter's late-season struggles with Munster; few would give him any chance of eclipsing Sexton.

Especially since his chance of sticking up the potentially fortuitous "Gone Fishin'" sign, akin to Donald, has been scuppered by a team-mate.

"I do like my fishing but Craig Gilroy took my fishing rod and I've no idea where it is," he smiles as Ulster Rugby unveiled their new Kukri home and away jerseys.

No matter. Although Jackson missed the entire international campaign last term, including Ireland's successful defence of the Six Nations crown, he firmly believes that he can battle by right to become Ireland's first-choice.

The public will scoff at such a notion; the players, and, more importantly, their coach Joe Schmidt demands of each player that they aim as high as possible.

And so, even though he was gazumped by current rival Ian Madigan when Ireland secured the 2013 title in Paris, despite being ahead of the Leinster man in the pecking order for the previous four games, the 23-year-old must eye Olympian heights.

"I want to challenge the number one position as well, definitely," stresses Jackson, hoping to find autumn form to match that of spring when he belatedly sparkled during Ulster's run-in to banish memories of an injury-ruined season.

"All I'm thinking about is my own game. No matter what the other players do, it can't affect me if I'm not focusing on my own game.

"If I can play as well as I can, there's no reason why I shouldn't be in the squad starting at ten. That's where my focus has to be.

"There's good competition between myself and the two Ians (albeit Keatley didn't make the summer's substantial cut). I wouldn't have an idea where I stand in the pecking order.

"Obviously Ian Madigan can cover a lot of the other positions, 12 and 15, even nine. I can't really base where I stand on too much because I haven't really been involved since the Six Nations a couple of seasons ago.

"Joe played me on the bench then and he had Ian as a utility replacement which is always useful. But listen, we're all thinking the same, if we get a chance we need to perform to get on that plane.

"It can be an uncertain position, when you're a back-up for only one position. You don't know what Joe is going to go for.

"He could end up choosing any of us really. It's a tough call for him as much as it is tough for us."

No player wants to unnerve the boss; at one stage Jackson unwittingly takes comfort in the knowledge that at least when he features for Ireland in their warm-ups, beginning in Cardiff this week, he will be first-choice kicker, unlike his Ulster status.

But when you press him as to whether this will also apply should Madigan be in the back-line, too, he takes a rare backward step.

"That's probably a conversation for later," he gulps guiltily.

It's a rare slip. Such was his late-season flourish with Ulster, arguably it didn't need rival Keatley's implosion at Munster to ensure his status at the epicentre of Ireland's World Cup preparations.


His ability to take the ball to the line has always been evident; even during his 2013 breakthrough under Declan Kidney, when most of the country were fulminating at Ronan O'Gara's demotion, Jackson's attacking thrust in that otherwise ghastly 2013 debut against the Scots was overshadowed by faux outrage.

His kicking responsibilities remain a factor that may undermine his ambitions; at provincial level, he is still not entrusted to be the number one man from the tee and that will mitigate against him staking a realistic claim to be Ireland's number one in the near future.

He got some opportunities towards the end of last year as Ruan Pienaar palled somewhat; just not enough.

"It's not ideal, I want to be kicking in every game I play," he admits.

"Missing out on so much rugby, it was a big ask for me to push Ruan aside and resume the kicking. I just wanted to focus on my game but I did get a chance to place-kick which was nice."

An intensive discussion on his kicking technique reveals that one doesn't always have to hit the ball hard to find the target.

"You can even hit it at 60pc of your full strength and be successful," he explains. "It's all about your posture and position at impact. Standing tall. Chest out."

Which pretty much sums up how he intends to address his World Cup selection challenge.

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