One man’s misfortune is another’s stroke of luck, but Paddy Jackson is going to have to take full advantage of Johnny Sexton’s injury in the most demanding of rugby environments.
Sexton had shoulder surgery this week and his absence is a huge blow for a squad already shorn of Peter O’Mahony, Cian Healy, and Sean O’Brien.
As Ireland coach Joe Schmidt talked about the competition between Jackson and Ian Madigan to wear the green No 10 jersey against South Africa it was hard to imagine the outgoing Leinster man getting first crack at the Springboks in Cape Town next weekend.
Madigan is not the complete product that many hoped he would become when Sexton departed Leinster for Racing 92 in 2013. Former Leinster coach Matt O’Connor did not have faith in him and the Dubliner bounced around between out-half, centre, and full-back, and he was lucky if half of his 42 starts in the last three seasons came in his favoured position.
By contrast, Jackson, who is three years younger than Madigan has had 60 starts in that same period — all of them at out-half. However, until now that has not translated into caps for the Ulster player as Madigan’s ability to provide “multi-purpose cover” on the bench earned Schmidt’s trust.
But since Madigan agreed to join Bordeaux-Begles in the Top 14, Jackson’s form with Ulster began to spike to the point where he is beginning to dominate the team and becoming less and less dependent on Ruan Pienaar, his scrum-half.
“Paddy was in and out of Ireland camp during that time [of the Six Nations] so he was certainly up to speed in terms of what we were doing. That was probably a real upsurge in his form. He was running a team [in Ulster] that he was the experienced player in,” Schmidt said. “The old guys like Rory weren’t there. He really took the team by the scruff of the neck and I think he grew during that period. There is always a silver lining and Paddy made the most of that.”
Like Craig Gilroy, who was also called up, (to replace the injured Dave Kearney), Jackson has benefited from the arrival of Les Kiss, the former Ireland defence coach who is now in charge of Ulster.
Kiss was a big supporter of Jackson when he made his international debut at the age of 21 and although few players can offer what Sexton does, Schmidt recognises the growth in Jackson’s game under the tutelage of his former colleague.
“If Les is at the top [at Ulster] then there’s no better man and I think that he would feed down through the coaches and directly into the playing group some real understanding of international level [rugby] and a real understanding of what it takes to get to that level and be consistent at it,” Schmidt said.
“If it is Jacko [who plays at 10] it’s a real opportunity for him fill those big boots, that big jersey, but also be himself. I’m not going to ask Paddy Jackson to be anyone other than the player he’s comfortable being because that’s a good player, that’s a player that can be effective at test level and he’s excited about that opportunity if it comes about.” Even with a fully fit squad Ireland would find three consecutive games with the Boks a tough proposition, but now Jackson will likely be tasked with piloting a team that will have new combinations in the back line and a pack that cannot sustain any more injuries. Between the 13 players unable to travel, Schmidt is without 466 caps worth of experience.
The forwards are the most straight-forward selections. Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Mike Ross should comprise the front row with Devin Toner and Iain Henderson packing down behind them. It would be a surprise if the back-row trio did not consist of CJ Stander, Rhys Ruddock, and Jamie Heaslip, but it is the backline where big calls have to be made.
With Rob Kearney out of the tour due to a hamstring injury, it is between Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne to control things from full back. Schmidt prefers the security that Payne offers in defence so it’s likely that Henshaw wears 15 with either Ulster’s Stuart Olding or Luke Marshall playing at inside centre. Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble should man the wings, but it’s unlikely that these players will start all three tests.
“When you lose experience, you often can gain excitement and there’s some really excited young players,” Schmidt said. “Hopefully that experience can be compensated with the excitement those guys bring.”
For all of the coach’s enthusiasm, however, you imagine he would prefer the boredom of a more recognisable touring party.
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