Jackson's understudy audition first up
Paddy Jackson got a first taste of playing in a senior Ireland shirt when he lined out in the non-cap international against Fiji at Thomond Park last November. Photograph: Inpho/James Crombie
All eyes on Paddy Jackson in Belfast tonight (with an occasional glance at Declan Fitzpatrick’s scrummaging and industry). Confirmation Jonathan Sexton will not feature in Murrayfield on Sunday week means the Irish management have to choose between Jackson and Leinster’s Ian Madigan to be Ronan O’Gara’s understudy when the Six Nations resumes against Scotland.
Madigan’s audition comes tomorrow, also in the comfort of his home patch, against Italian opposition.
Jackson, at 21, may be two years younger, lighter and with inferior kicking statistics to the Blackrock outhalf-cum-fullback but Declan Kidney has been grooming the Methody man for well over a year.
Madigan was only recently included in the extended Ireland training camp.
It comes down to a straight choice to see who will be Ireland’s second- and third-choice outhalves – a role never filled before, unless you count Ulster’s Paddy Wallace, who acted as outhalf cover for many seasons.
Wallace, as it turns out, is unavailable this evening due to a leg injury, allowing another Kidney favourite, Luke Marshall, a run at inside centre alongside the returning Darren Cave.
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe fields a significantly stronger team to the side that lost 16-12 to the Ospreys last weekend. That was only their second defeat of the Pro12, and third of the season, but another stumble looks highly unlikely.
Chris Henry and Iain Henderson strengthen the backrow but another Ireland-influenced selection is Fitzpatrick ahead of All Black tighthead John Afoa.
Fitzpatrick is looking increasingly likely to feature more prominently in the remaining three Six Nations matches to ensure Mike Ross doesn’t have to constantly put in 80-minute scrummaging shifts.
Up to the mark
But the injury-prone Fitzpatrick must prove he is up to the mark.
Afoa returns from a three- week, unscheduled break in New Zealand, where his wife has returned to have their third child. Contracted until the end of 2013/’14, he stayed in shape by training with the Auckland Blues under John Kirwan.
The former All Black winger indicated Afoa’s return home would be most welcome so that story may have life to it yet.
Another interesting selection is former Lansdowne winger Neil Walsh on the bench, the Dubliner arriving at Ulster last month after a three-year stint playing in Melbourne.
Not much is expected from Zebre, bottom of the league and 47 points adrift of the leaders, but it is how Jackson directs possession that will be most telling. Especially with Madigan’s final audition coming 22 hours later.
ULSTER: R Andrew; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Cochrane; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick; J Muller (capt), L Stevenson; I Henderson, C Henry, R Diack. Replacements: N Annett, C Black, J Afoa, N McComb, M McComish, M Heaney, S Olding, N Walsh.
ZEBRE: P Buso; L Sarto, A Benettin, G Garcia, S Sinoti; D Halangahu, A Chillon; A de Marchi, A Manici, L Redolfini; M van Vuren, M Bortolami (capt); F Cristiano, M Bergamasco, J Sole. Replacements: C Festuccia, C Fazzari, M Aguero, D van Schalkwyk, N Belardo, A Chiesa, M Pratichetti, D Odiete. Referee: N Paterson (SRU). Verdict: Ulster win.