He might not be the finished article quite yet but within the Ireland camp there is a strong feeling that Paddy Jackson is well on the way to proving himself a genuine rival for Johnny Sexton in the chase for the green number 10 jersey.
Jackson, 24, has seized the opportunity presented by Sexton’s shoulder injury in last month’s Pro12 final, his cool and confident game management, a perfectly executed drop goal, nerveless place-kicking and wholehearted defensive work in 14-man Ireland’s opening test victory over the Springboks last Saturday earning plaudits from coaches and team-mates alike as he guided his side to an historic first win in South Africa.
Fellow Ulster and Ireland back Jared Payne believes the best is yet to come from a player who did not cope well as a 21-year-old test rookie by Declan Kidney in 2013 but who has since found his feet in international rugby.
“I think Jacko’s going to be a cracking fly-half,” Payne said. “He’s got everything you need, he’s gutsy, he’s fit, he’s an awesome defender, he’s just got everything and he’s still really young, you’ve got to remember.
“People in Ireland probably crucified him a little bit back in the day because he got thrown in so young, which was pretty unfair. If I was as good as him at his age I’d be over the moon.
“He’s only going to get better and better and it’s going to be good for Irish rugby having both him and Johnny that can do a job at 10 for a team and are competing for the position can only be good.”
Skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy has been working with Jackson for the past three seasons as part of Joe Schmidt’s management team and has seen the Ulster fly-half come of age in the company of Sexton.
“Even when he wasn’t getting picked, he was a fantastic guy to deal work, always worked really hard, just trying to get better,” Murphy said. “He would have spent a lot of time with Johnny and would have learnt quite a bit from him. He’s been great.
“I’ve been really impressed by him. I’ve been working with him up in Ulster a good few times during the season and he just wants to work, to get better. He’s got a great attitude.”
If Ireland supporters were nervous about Jackson’s readiness to take the spotlight in Sexton’s absence their fears proved misplaced last Saturday as the fly-half kicked 16 points, including a well-taken drop goal to level the game at 13-all when his team had only 13 men on the field following the dismissal of CJ Stander and yellow card for Robbie Henshaw.
“I was delighted with the drop goal, yeah, really thrilled with it,” Murphy said.
“We started working on drop goals in the lead-in to the World Cup, having had a chat with Paddy about it being one of the areas of the game that he was really struggling with.
“After every training session, we just started doing five-to-10 drop-goals and we built up a bit of a routine for him and its paid off. He didn’t get much time at the World Cup, but when he got back to Ulster he knocked over two within two weeks of being back, he knocked over another one during the year and then this one.
“It’s funny, as the play was developing and as they were going to that next ruck I said to myself: ‘drop goal’.
“To have the confidence to take it on was massive and I think it was the perfect decision at the time.
“We had played a couple of phases and we’d started to lose a bit of shape. We’d 13 v 15 men and three points at that stage of the game was vital.”
There were errors last Saturday, not least when Jackson kicked a restart out on the full and also gifted Pieter-Steph du Toit an intercept pass that ended in a try for South Africa. Murphy is impressed by Jackson’s mental strength, in particular the ability to park mistakes and move with focus to the next task.
“What he did within the game, he didn’t compound errors. He threw an intercept pass, but he stepped up a couple of minutes later and nailed another penalty.
“He’s shown good signs of maturity over the last 12 months. His game has been improving through that period. He works really hard on his game, he’s becoming a leader in this environment and he’s also very much a leader in the Ulster environment. I think he’s just coming of age,” he added.
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