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Dublin: 11 °C Sunday 20 April, 2014

Paddy Jackson showing clear signs of progress for Ulster

Meanwhile, Ian Madigan’s progress at Leinster has stalled due to the form of Jimmy Gopperth.

Jackson has been in excellent form in the past two weeks.
Jackson has been in excellent form in the past two weeks.
Image: ©INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd

IT WAS SUPPOSED to be so easy. So said Mike Skinner on his A Grand Don’t Come for Free album.

While Ian Madigan knew he would have to work hard to secure the starting spot he so craves at Leinster this season, the realisation now is that the number 10 shirt doesn’t come for free. Still, it wasn’t supposed to work out like this.

Meanwhile, Paddy Jackson has had superb back-to-back performances for Ulster in the Heineken Cup. He showed composure and excellent kicking skills to see off the challenge of the Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill, and followed that up by displaying maturity beyond his years to help Ulster to make a statement of a 25-8 win in Montpellier.

Apparently gone is the perceived flakiness in the 21-year-old’s game, and the tendency to lose focus for short spells has been missing too. These were quite possibly two of the most assured performances of Jackson’s young career as he played all 80 minutes of both games.

Madigan got 11 minutes over the course of Leinster’s two opening wins against the Ospreys and Castres, with all of them coming in the second game. Jimmy Gopperth’s game management is winning out for now, and the pressure is well and truly on Madigan to shine when he gets his chance in the RaboDirect Pro12, probably as soon as Saturday against Connacht.

Joe Schmidt would obviously have hoped that both young out-halves started the Heineken Cup season wearing number 10 as he looks to create real competition behind Jonny Sexton. That hasn’t happened, but the manner in which Jackson has matured will offer great encouragement in a position where Ireland were too dependent on Sexton last season.

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Madigan’s Heineken Cup opportunites have been limited by Jimmy Gopperth. ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy.

Ulster’s coaching and playing staff have long insisted that Jackson was the real deal, but the shakiness of his goal kicking possibly resulted in the perception that he lacked a strong mental edge. That argument certainly had a basis, with first three international caps in last season’s Six Nations doing little to disprove it.

However, alongside Ruan Pienaar, the out-half gave a demonstration of high-class tactical kicking and game management in Montpellier. While it was the South African who did the large majority of the kicking for territory, Jackson’s six efforts included a couple of stand-outs. The Ireland international also contributed a conversion, but did miss with his one penalty attempt.

The week before, Jackson offered up his best place kicking display of the season against Leicester, slotting six out of seven chances. His one failure was a particularly badly-struck kick, but overall it was promising to see Jackson progress in the area which will nevertheless continue to cause concern for his detractors.

Aside from kicking, Jackson has defended well throughout the two Heineken Cup encounters, with his try-saving tackle on Thomas Combezou in Montpellier a particular highlight. At under 90kg, Jackson is not the most physically imposing but he is brave and puts himself in the way of ball-carriers.

He has passed well in traffic too, and his attacking threat is underrated. Jackson is willing to take the ball to the line before passing and in the face of the aggressive Montpellier defence, his distribution was crisp and accurate. Similarly, against Leicester the week before, the Ulster out-half’s passing allowed his team to create several try-scoring chances, many of which were left untaken.

Madigan’s attributes as an attacking out-half are well known, and he too is a solid defender. Schmidt is a fan, having helped the 24-year-old to develop those strengths during his three-year tenure at Leinster. It will be intriguing to find out if the new Ireland coach still sees Madigan as number two to Sexton despite his lack of Heineken Cup exposure.

What’s your take on the depth chart at out-half for Ireland? Will we see Madigan backing up Sexton for the November internationals or will Jackson be the man? Could all three 10s see game time?

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