Ulster put faith in all-action Jackson
Ulster are pinning their hopes on the youthful Paddy Jackson to steer them past Edinburgh in tomorrow’s Heineken Cup semi-final at the Aviva Stadium. The 20-year-old will wear the number 10 jersey as Brian McLaughlin makes one of the biggest calls of his three-year tenure as head coach, a position he was sensationally ordered to step down from in February.
His confidence in Jackson will hopefully not be misplaced. McLaughlin has preferred the 20-year-old Belfast-born playmaker to enigmatic regular fly-half Ian Humphreys. It is Jackson’s unflinching tackling that is one of the main reasons he has been handed such an important role in Ulster’s biggest game for 13 years.
It was probably that aspect last week in the defeat by Leinster which convinced McLaughlin that Jackson deserves his day at the stadium where he first paraded his all-round skills a couple of seasons ago.
“He’s a smashing rugby player. I watched him quite a few times after he left school,” McLaughlin said. “I watched him at the opening of the Aviva Stadium and he had a smashing game there and I’ve watched him quite a few times down at Dungannon.
“We thought long and hard about putting him in but he’s got the experience all around him. I have no worries about him at all. He’s a great guy for the future, so let’s find out about him and see what he can do.”
Jackson, who captained this season’s Ireland under-20 side, has a big boot and astute tactical brain, despite his young age. This will be Jackson’s first start in Europe after making three appearances from the bench this season and wraps up a great season for him.
“My first Heineken Cup game was when I came on in the last five minutes of the away game against Leicester in November,” he said. “It’s a very intense crowd at Welford Road and as you come out of the tunnel, the crowd above you are stamping their feet — I just thought that was class and I was really buzzing.
“From an Irish 20s point of view, captaining the team was a big honour but our away win over France really stands out, we won 13-12.”
Since he stood out during the opening of the new Aviva Stadium nearly two years ago, Jackson, who plays his club rugby for Dungannon, has been earmarked to wear the Ulster number 10 jersey.
He converted the first try at the new Aviva complex, that try scored by his fellow Ulster star Craig Gilroy, and the pair hope to plot their way to Twickenham.
“I got six kicks out of six that day and hit the cross-field kick to Craig for his try, so it was a pretty good. I imagine the atmosphere will be quite different on Saturday however, there’s an awful lot more at stake.”
Belfast-born Jackson made his full Ulster debut in the old Magners League against the Scarlets last February. Like his debut game at Parc y Scarlets, Jackson will have the vast experience of Ruan Pienaar inside him as his half-back partner and a fit Paddy Wallace outside, so he won’t have to look too far for advice if he comes in from some close attention from the famed Edinburgh back row.
“My first Ulster cap was amazing,” said the curly-haired Jackson. “I was just out of school and suddenly I found myself playing against Scarlets in the Pro12 alongside Ruan and Paddy. It was a wonderful experience.”
The decision to include Jackson would have been McLaughlin’s biggest, with the rest of starting line-up going along the usual lines, with Declan Fitzpatrick starting at tight-head in place of the suspended John Afoa and Dan Tuohy returning to partner Johann Muller in the second row. The rest of the team selects itself. However, the big question still remains on whether the ever-reliable Chris Henry will make the game due to his lower leg injury, with Willie Faloon standing by to wear the number seven jersey.
© This appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Friday, April 27, 2012