Ireland coach Declan Kidney today served notice that Ronan O’Gara’s Test career is nearing its conclusion after naming the uncapped Paddy Jackson at fly-half against Scotland.
The expectation was that O’Gara would replace Jonathan Sexton, who tore his hamstring in the 12-6 defeat by England, for what has become a pivotal RBS 6 Nations clash at Murrayfield.
But in a bold move by a coach frequently criticised for his conservatism, Kidney has confined Ireland’s most capped player – with 127 appearances – to the bench and asked the 21-year-old Jackson to revive the team’s fading title aspirations.
Adding to the new-look midfield axis is the promotion of Luke Marshall - another uncapped Ulsterman – to inside centre after Gordon D’Arcy was struck down by a foot injury.
Selecting Jackson is one of the biggest calls of Kidney’s five-year reign as coach, second only to his decision – also made in this Six Nations – to name Jamie Heaslip captain at the expense of Brian O’Driscoll.
It would appear to have major repercussions for O’Gara when Sexton returns, either against France on March 9 or Italy a week later.
“Paddy’s inclusion was a challenge given that somebody of the stature of Ronan O’Gara was available,” Kidney said.
“After taking everything into account, I felt Paddy deserved a go. Paddy has the skills and has shown he has the temperament and ability to make decisions.
“It was difficult to leave Ronan out of the team, it was right up there. But that’s the best compliment I can give Paddy.
“Ronan took the news like the man he is. He accepted the decision and trained this morning as though it was his first training session.”
O’Gara, who turns 36 next month, has offered fly-half cover to Sexton since the 2011 World Cup but his form this season has been poor.
Once Sexton had been helped from the pitch after half an hour against England, the stage was set for O’Gara to bring his experience, kicking and tactical nous to bear in difficult conditions, but instead the Munster veteran was dismal.
Another poor display against Llanelli over the weekend confirmed his decline, prompting Kidney to make a surprising yet understandable adjustment.
Jackson is not without his critics, however, after crumbling in last year’s Heineken Cup final defeat by Leinster. He will also be given the kicking duties against Scotland even though South African Ruan Pienaar performs the role for Ulster.
“Paddy’s in a good place. He has some good experience under his belt, which can also be negative experiences that he’s bounced back from,” Kidney said.
“Of all positions, at fly-half you have to be able to deal with adversity because it’s a pivotal position.
“Sometimes they get all the glory and sometimes all the blame when they deserve neither.”
Jackson insists he is ready for what awaits at Murrayfield, growing in confidence since Ulster were crushed 42-14 by Leinster at Twickenham in May.
“I’ve come a long way since the Heineken Cup final. I’ll be more used to dealing with nerves and don’t think I’ll be as nervous,” he said.
“After the Heineken Cup final I forgot about rugby for a while. I took a break, came back for pre-season and knuckled down.”
Marshall, who along with Jackson played in last autumn’s non-cap international against Fiji, is thrilled by the prospect of playing alongside Brian O’Driscoll.
“I’ve been watching Brian play since I was nine. I never thought this day would come,” the 21-year-old said.
“I think he’ll have a calming influence because he’ll be able to take a bit of heat off me.”
The left wing vacancy opened by Simon Zebo’s foot problem has been filled by Keith Earls, while Tom Court has been chosen to replace the suspended Cian Healy at loosehead prop.
In the last of the five changes to the side defeated by England, Donncha O’Callaghan partners Donnacha Ryan in the second row with Mike McCarthy ruled out by knee ligament damage.
Leinster winger Luke Fitzgerald is included on the bench, his first involvement for Ireland since August 2011.