Brian O’Driscoll was on the scene in Edinburgh four years ago when Paddy Jackson’s Ireland debut veered off script but the retired centre believes the Ulster man’s progress has been such there is no reason for Ireland to panic in Jonathan Sexton’s absence this Saturday, writes Brendan O’Brien.
Sexton’s calf injury and latest enforced absence means Jackson will start a Six Nations for the first time since that 2012/13 season when Declan Kidney thrust him into the spotlight so unexpectedly for what proved to be a traumatic afternoon at Murrayfield.
O’Driscoll played all 80 minutes that day, chaperoning another rookie in Luke Marshall at centre as Ireland went down to a dismal 12-8 loss and, though Jackson endured a sometimes torturous time, the Leinster man has watched him progress in “leaps and bounds” since.
He spoke yesterday of a player whose running game was always exceptional and one who has learned to take the ball to the gain line far more. A popular character whose goal-kicking has improved greatly and whose defensive game on tour in South Africa last summer was top drawer.
“Yeah, I think we’ve gone beyond the stage of panicking for sure, but the team is not as strong without Johnny,” said O’Driscoll at the Children’s University Hospital on Dublin’s Temple Street. “That’s the reality. But people were very worried about South Africa in the summer and Paddy did very well.
“The quality of this squad is the strength in depth and Paddy will come in and do an incredibly proficient job I am sure, but it’s not ideal that you have Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery both out. I don’t know whether Joey is second choice now or not, you’d have to ask Joe (Schmidt) that.”
The Ireland coach will make everything abundantly clear today at lunchtime when he names his starting XV and eight reserves for the RBS Six Nations opener against Scotland and the choice of cover for Jackson, all but certain to be Munster’s Ian Keatley, is sure to dominate much of the discourse.
Keatley has fallen behind Tyler Blyendaal in the pecking order with the province after a tough two years, hasn’t featured for Ireland since starting the opening game, against Italy, in 2015 and his goal-kicking hasn’t inspired confidence.
With Rory Scannell, a centre with an irregular sideline in duties at out-half, the only other back-up to Jackson, the question will again be asked as to why Ian Madigan’s 30 caps couldn’t outweigh the unpalatable fact his current address is to be found in Bordeaux.
“There’s no harm in having a third 10,” said O’Driscoll who played alongside Madigan with both Leinster and Ireland. “I presume Rory Scannell has been playing a bit at 10 too. Probably there’s a statement in not including him (Madigan). When he was going away he had a fair idea that he’d have to be really outstanding for him to catch the attention of Joe. I’ve seen a couple of his games and he’s been playing okay, but whether in Joe’s mind he warrants inclusion, obviously he doesn’t think so.”
The out-half debate may be the topic du jour but it is Conor Murray whom O’Driscoll believes holds the key to Irish hopes this week and he was clearly taken aback by the bullishness of Greig Laidlaw in interviews this week and the focus they seem to be placing on the Munster nine.
Vern Cotter may be moving back to France come the summer but Scotland are a team with some wind in their sails and O’Driscoll feels it could be a “brutal” encounter for Ireland as they look to build on the momentum they generated last November.
“They’ve got more strength in depth too,” he said of the Scots. “Vern Cotter, maybe from the outset, or certainly when they decided to part ways with him, they didn’t realise what good shape they were in. Their two provincial teams are doing well in Europe. I know Edinburgh are struggling a small bit in the PRO12 but there’s a lot of players playing with a good bit of confidence and, when the spine of your team is coming from that Glasgow side and the way that they’ve been playing in recent weeks, there’s no reason for them not to be confident.”
Whatever the outcome in Edinburgh this time, O’Driscoll expects Ireland to reach the final round meeting with England in mid-March with “something to play for” though the vagaries of the bonus point system introduced this year may have a say on that. “I don’t like the idea of it, personally. I didn’t think there was any problem with it,” he said … “There’s a nostalgia in me about how great a competition it’s been for years. Why change it up? It’s great. Why do you have to tweak it to stay with the times because other hip competitions are doing it?.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner