Had Ulster won, it would have been a storyline squeezed for space by its subplots.
In Brian McLaughlin and Paddy Jackson it had two of the mostintriguing characters — a coach with an uncertain future who put faith in a youngster for the biggest game in the club’s history.
Jackson started only his second Heineken Cup game at Twickenham two days ago and it showed. The ten-minute spell before the break when he failed to tee up a two-man overlap and skewed a simple drop goal wide summed up his afternoon.
Then there was the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I moment six minutes after the interval when he looked to Nigel Owens for assurance that he could kick the ball out on the full after Stephen Ferris passed it back from the border of the 22.
Such reassurances aren’t part of the referee’s remit and the Welshman’s lips stayed shut — until he whistled and brought the ball back to the kick’s point of origin from where Leinster manoeuvred the maul and penalty try that killed the game.
McLaughlin claimed afterwards he had no regrets about anything he did on Saturday and insisted he would choose Jackson at 10 if the game was to be played again. But that particular vignette displayed how much the kid has to learn.
“Look, this is a professional game and whenever you go on to the pitch you can’t be asking the referee,” said McLaughlin.
“These are things on occasions like this that players should know and they should be able to react to.
“I wouldn’t say anything against Nigel and, look, Paddy is an exceptional talent and we picked him because we knew he could do the job for us.”
It is three years since Jonathan Sexton was parachuted into the Leinster cockpit against Munster in a Heineken Cup semi-final but that was by necessity and the St Mary’s man had long left his teens behind him at the time.
Jackson’s callowness is further highlighted by the fact that he will spend part of his summer captaining the Irish U20s at the Junior World Cup in South Africa but he displayed real maturity in facing the media after Saturday’s game. It wasn’t, he admitted, his finest hour but the experience will stand to him. If nothing else, he was afforded a bird’s eye view of Sexton, a man who has overcome challenges of his own in years past, at work.
“He seems to be so calm and has a lot of time on the ball,” Jackson said of the Ireland man. “Obviously his goal kicking is world class and I swapped shirts with him after the game, well, our spare shirts.”
McLaughlin’s belief in Jackson’s bright future remains unshakeable but what of his own? A role with the Ulster Academy awaits but his achievement in dragging his province up by the bootstraps this last three years merits another front-line role should he want it.
“Look at where he has taken us from where we started,” said flanker Chris Henry after the game. “It’s incredible. There is nobody in Ulster Rugby wanted us to win more than him. For players that is infectious. He is the ultimate professional and I can’t thank him enough for what he has done. We have all learned so much from him and I think he has learned from us. It is going to be strange without him next year. Unfortunately that is the way rugby is at times.”
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