Jackson ready to stand up to the pressure
Part of the look on Irish manager Mick Kearney’s face was revelling in the final episode of this week’s slow-burning serial. Paddy Jackson and his kicking has been a comic strip of a story, not quite Boys Own heroics but with its own compelling narrative and a hamstring twist.
It has been a tortuous week of heavily-weighted questions on a wide range of competency issues dropped on Declan Kidney, Kearney and, not least of all, the 21-year-old Ulsterman.
Jackson took his kicks on Wednesday under the guidance of coach Mark Tainton and his hamstring held up.
He rocked up in the Aviva with Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden, a well-loaded squad in the boot department, then passed yesterday’s training session without issue.
The triumph of the first half of the week has been modest and well met. Jackson is on the pitch and will start with Madigan on the bench alongside uncapped prop Stephen Archer who is preferred as back-up to Michael Bent.
All there is now is France. Jackson can look forward to being the centre of attention there.
As a backrow, Peter O’Mahony has spent a career hunting down vulnerable backs. That France will look at a 21-year-old outhalf with just one cap and see it as an Irish weakness is almost accepted wisdom.
“Of course they might,” says O’Mahony. “It would be silly of them not to.
“But we’ll be looking at all of their players in the same way, trying to break them down. This is his second cap but we can’t do anything about that, we just have to look after ourselves at the moment.”
O’Mahony is loath to talk around what the French may or may not think about Jackson. However if the boot was on the other foot and the French 10 was callow at international level, he would present an equally mouth-watering target for Ireland.
“Obviously you would have a game plan around it and you’d be running down his channel and all these things,” adds O’Mahony with obvious reluctance.
“But I keep saying he is well able to tackle, well able to look after himself and he has Lukie (Marshall) outside him there – he’s 100 kilos, a big lump of a young fellah.
“The backrow will be looking after him, the pack will be there so he doesn’t have to worry about that kind of stuff, he just needs to back himself.”
Few second caps arrive with such a payload. While the Irish squad will have laboured all week to buttress Jackson and remind him of the reasons that he was picked by Kidney, there will have been few matches ever played in the Aviva where the first kick will be seen as such a weather vane.
A dozen different conclusions will be drawn from it. Even if the players have armoured themselves for a few missed kicks, the crowd are less stoic and more vocal about perceived setbacks.
But young players are durable and while Jackson may thrive or prosper on a few opening decisions, that has been the norm during his career as much as the first scrum will determine what sort of day Mike Ross is expected to have.
His usefulness centres on anchoring the scrum. If others can help out they will. There O’Mahony will be an enthusiastic volunteer.
Advice from me
“Paddy has played in a Heineken Cup final and in the Heineken Cup for a year at this stage,” says the backrow.
“I don’t think he needs any advice from me. I can put my hand on his shoulder and say I’ll be there for him but that’s about all I can tell him. He’s a good footballer.
“All he needs to do now is back himself, have confidence in his ability and he will do fine. He is a great tackler, brave, fabulous distributor and really, it’s only about backing himself and he will do well.”
The reality is that the entire team are responsible for whatever transpires.
Jackson’s role as this fortnight’s fall guy – with bit parts for Madigan and Ronan O’Gara – diverts some attention from the acknowledged frustration and underachievement of the group as a whole.
Jackson’s struggle is a microcosm of a squad that feels it has to justify possession of the jersey and regain the trust of the terraces.
“I think fellas are champing at the bit to get back on the jersey and put in a big performance,” says O’Mahony. “Fellas are really looking forward to the weekend. As I said we just want to put it right . . . you know
“Fellas are really, really looking forward to getting back into it and putting it right. It’s horrible to take after the game and your mood is probably the worst it has been for a long time afterwards. You’ve got to dust your self off.” The serial has finished; now the main feature is just about to start.