Outhalf eager to take his chance to run the show
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone . . . ,” goes the lament. In the Rose room it was difficult to know if the Irish team press conference was just that for the venerable Ronan O’Gara or a celebration of renewal. If rugby has the capacity to pause and allow tectonic plates to shift, yesterday was one of those moments.
One way or another Declan Kidney finally struck out. The alleged arch conservative completed his season of the long knife and by game three of this year’s championship has changed the face of the Irish rugby landscape.
O’Gara’s position of game manager, point kicker, cage rattler and imp slid from view and by Kidney’s side yesterday were two of the new wave, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall, fresh faced and not appearing the least bit spooked. O’Gara was the first to shake Jackson’s hand.
“That was very nice of him. He didn’t have much to say,” said the 21-year-old. “He just said ‘well done, I’m happy for you’.”
Brian O’Driscoll went with dignity but with no burning love for the decision to make Jamie Heaslip captain. Now it has been made clear to O’Gara that his place as a shaper of games at international level is at very best under question.
With Heaslip the voice of the team, Jackson at outhalf and the richly-talented Marshall paired with O’Driscoll for the injured Gordon D’Arcy, Kidney has quietly accommodated significant change over the last month, albeit under injury duress.
With Paul O’Connell in rehabilitation the former Irish captain is the lone remnant of what used to be Irish rugby’s north, south, east and west.
“It would have been Ronan and (Jonny) Wilkinson (I watched) when I was a bit younger,” said Jackson with captain Jamie Heaslip chiming in “yeah, a year ago”.
Youthful and three months younger than England’s Owen Farrell, Jackson is self-contained. But there is an over riding and healthy ambition to his personality and the image of a green shirt with number 10 came quickly to him less than two weeks ago.
“I think it was probably when I was watching the game and saw Johnny (Sexton) go down,” he says. “I sort of sat up in my seat a little bit. I had a game for Ulster the next week and had to focus on that. But I knew the position was up for grabs.”
Despite South African Ruan Pienaar assuming the kicking role in Ulster last weekend Jackson is ready for it, ready to run the back line, to take the kicks in Murrayfield, ready too to shamelessly vy with Sexton on his return.
“Ruan Pienaar is one of the best kickers in the world. He has 10-15 metres on me,” says the Ulster outhalf. “Mark (Anscombe) sat me down and said ‘listen Ruan’s kicking’. I just got on with it and went out and played.
“I hadn’t played for about three weeks so I didn’t really want to have it on my shoulders that I hadn’t kicked in a while with my ankle. So I wasn’t going to be selfish. I just wanted to get back playing. I’ve been kicking the last few weeks in training. It’s no big issue really.”
Jackson’s career curve from Methody College through the Irish age groups and into the Irish driving seat in a quick spurt over three years is far from leaving him overawed. Like his former rival at outhalf at schools level and close friend Marshall, Jackson has always expected and always achieved.
There will be setbacks but successive career elevations, the last as captain of the Ireland under-20s, have been fatefully mapped out for him.
Asked was he ready, he didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, of course. It’s my first cap and something I’ve been wanting to achieve for a long time . . . since I was a kid really. So I’m very much looking forward to it.
“I have tried to make it happen. I am not going to say I expected to be in this position. But it is something I have aimed for and obviously with Johnny and Ronan in there I knew that if there was an injury there might be a chance. There might not have been either. I’m just glad it has happened.”
O’Gara’s teacher and coach from school days, it was Sod’s Law that the closest hand might finally pull the lever. Kidney added that the 36-year-old trained “like it was his first day” while his home spun wisdoms accommodated the decision as the ebb and flow of the sport, a complex organic progression. How hard was it he was asked. “Right up there. Very difficult. The best compliment that I can give to Paddy,” said Kidney.
There was a lingering inference to his words that O’Gara can come back. Not everyone in the room agreed.