Young guns to duel for deputy's badge
WE love few things more in Ireland than a good out-half debate and the latest battle will take further shape here this week .
Unlike Ward v Campbell or Sexton v O'Gara, the clash between Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan is for the No 22 jersey rather than No 10 at this stage, but both know what is at stake in Houston and Toronto over the next two weeks as Joe Schmidt casts his eye over the Ireland squad for the first time.
With Sexton over in Australia with the Lions, and the focus there with him, this is a chance for both of these young men to make the case for becoming the sheriff's deputy in November.
It is a job that Madigan is well accustomed to after three seasons as back-up at Leinster, while the incumbent Jackson has just gone through a whirlwind 12 months of scrutiny and criticism that few Irish players his age have been subjected to.
Both men were capped for the first time in the Six Nations, but the circumstances surrounding their first appearances were wildly different.
Jackson was pitched in at the deep end against Scotland, with arguably Ireland's greatest fly-half left on the bench, disgruntled, and the cause celebre – Madigan – not in the squad. It didn't go well and Ireland lost.
Madigan, meanwhile, was able to ride the crest of popularity his free-running, try-scoring form allowed him and every time Kidney ignored his candidacy his legend grew.
When he finally made his bow off the bench against France, he ended up playing scrum-half when Conor Murray was sin-binned. A week later he was a centre against Italy.
His performances were good and, given he wasn't playing in his own position, he was beyond reproach.
So, while Madigan was posting pictures of himself in his new cap on Twitter, Jackson was getting it from all angles, just as he had when his Heineken Cup final went south against Leinster last May. 'He stands too deep', 'he can't kick', 'he isn't O'Gara' came the calls.
Yet, when Jackson lined up opposite both Sexton and Madigan in last month's Pro12 final, it was he who shone the brightest with ball in hand, making two telling breaks that would have resulted in tries if it weren't for shocking finishing from Robbie Diack and Isa Nacewa's illegal horse-collar tackle.
Suddenly, the RDS was reminded just why Irish coaches got so excited about the young man who was U-20 captain last year.
Most players his age are confined to British & Irish Cup games and Pro12 outings when the internationals are away, but Jackson has grown up in the glare of the spotlight and, as his friend and Ulster team-mate Chris Henry admits, has been through the mill.
"I've never seen a guy take a game so to heart like Paddy did the Heineken Cup final last year, it took him a long time to get over that and to give his confidence a bump," Henry explained.
"He went through a lot of soul-searching and had to work through some hard times, but his performance in the Rabo final really shone through. He has taken more charge, he's more confident in meetings.
"I thought he was thrown in at the deep end for Ireland and his kicking game at times – well he'd be the first to admit that is something he has had to work on.
"I thought he had a good Six Nations, but, unfortunately he got the brunt for performances.
"In his first cap, everything was on him and if I was his age I don't think I'd have been able to take it.
"He put his head down, did his work and went about his business. He has come into his own and the Pro12 final showed it.
"It wasn't the result we wanted, but he had a great game in the final and that put closure on last year."
While Jackson has struggled, Madigan has flourished. The injury to Sexton that gave Jackson his Ireland chance handed the Leinster man an opportunity to flourish for the province and he finished as their Player of the Year and with the Pro12 Golden Boot award.
Over the next two weeks, he will bid to impress Schmidt further while vying with Jackson for the back-up slot in November.
Both young men are set to start a game each and, according to Henry, they have been stamping their authority around camp.
"The likes of Madigan and Jacko, who are both young, they're not afraid to speak up," he said.
"They are still learning the game, but, like a quarterback, you need your half-backs to call the shots and step up. It is a young squad and you need lads putting their hands up. The two lads have already done that."
Schmidt won't make his mind up over the next fortnight, but this is a real opportunity for both men to steal a march on the other and how it runs will be one of the key storylines of this tour.