Debutants Jackson and Marshall prepare for Edinburgh's Ulster schools reunion
Declan Kidney surprised many by opting against selecting the experienced Ronan O'Gara and instead picking outhalf Paddy Jackson (above) for his first cap.
RUGBY:Ian Rankin, the Scottish crime writer, once described the Scotland-England international at Murrayfield as the biggest public school reunion of the year. So perhaps somewhat fittingly, the Irish back line will feature something of an Ulster school reunion in the same ground this Sunday.
Not alone will Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall, one-time opposing Ulster Schools Senior Cup outhalves with Methody and Ballymena Academy, make their Irish debuts alongside each other at numbers 10 and 12, but they will be accompanied by their fellow 21-year-old, Craig Gilroy, who was a teammate of Jackson’s on the wing back in those schools’ clashes.
Marshall’s ensuing move to centre in the Ulster set-up was in part down to Jackson’s ascendancy at 10, the latter yesterday chiding Marshall about two abortive left-footed drop goals from the 10 metre in one of their schools head-to-heads.
Jackson won those by two to one in the process of picking up two Ulster Senior Cup medals, prompting Jamie Heaslip to close out yesterday’s press conference by raising Jackson’s left arm a la a referee of a prize fight.
The Irish captain had begun proceedings by good-naturedly forewarning Jackson of the numerous media obligations that awaited him, and aside from maintaining he was “relishing” next Sunday’s challenge rather than feeling under pressure himself, said of the debutants: “To be honest I don’t even look at them as new caps, because I considered what they did against Fiji, the impact they had in the whole November series as well.
“I’ve complete faith in the lads coming in doing their job and doing it well, and playing with that passion and emotion that they’ve shown in training.”
Indeed, while their hand has been forced by injuries, there has been planning to the succession stakes, with 10 of the starting XV in the 53-0 non-Test win over Fiji in Thomond Park last November featuring in Sunday’s squad, including the aforementioned trio. Marshall augmented Gilroy’s hat-trick that day while Jackson kicked 13 points and everything about their temperament suggests they will treat this game in the same way.
Each of the three Ulster amigos has travelled slightly different routes, Gilroy breaking into the Ulster set-up via the club game at Dungannon and breaking into the Irish team fractionally ahead of his compadres, but each has made sufficiently rapid progress to herald what will hopefully be a brave new dawn in the absence of up to seven front-line first-teamers this week, including four Lions and three would-be Lions.
Elsewhere, Keith Earls and Donncha O’Callaghan replace Simon Zebo and Mike McCarthy, while Tom Court also jumps above David Kilcoyne in the pecking order, although there Declan Kidney favoured experience. Devin Toner, Iain Henderson and Luke Fitzgerald are recalled to the bench.
Contrary to the popular perception of him, Kidney is not averse to making such calls, through Grand Slam and two Heineken Cup campaigns and much else besides. To a degree, O’Gara’s less than convincing form is a factor, but even so the shock of his decision having subsided a little by the time Kidney confirmed his line-up yesterday, the call at outhalf is certainly a brave one.
“People will always have their opinions on different things,” said the Irish coach. “There were always going to be five changes for one reason or another, so that doesn’t seem to stack up much there; you have to put 15 on the pitch. Then it’s a case of looking to see who is going best, and that’s the combination that has shown itself at training and in matches recently. That’s the job.
“Most teams are pretty good in that they pick themselves. Sometimes when you have a few changes that’s when the coach has to step in and make a few decisions that are deemed to be close. That’s the job.”
The decision is not without a certain sadness too, as it casts a cloud over the continuing international career of a legend; Ireland’s most capped player and record points scorer. “Ronan will bench with us (on Sunday) and form is temporary, class is permanent,” said Kidney when asked of O’Gara’s recent form.
“When a fella has one or two dips, you know with experience they depend on matches or the situation they find themselves in. I would have no fears for Ronan (on Sunday). In terms of his form, I’m not comfortable using words like that. You have to assess the whole picture.
“It’s so easy to narrow yourself or bracket yourself into one particular area, to go down that channel. You just have to look at the collective, of all the information you have as a coach, the background of fellas, where they are, what they are bringing to it, how the match finishes, all those things come into it.”
Asked how O’Gara took the news, Kidney said: “Like the man he is. He trained this morning as if it was his first training session.”
The biggest caveat in Jackson’s accession to the outhalf throne is that an ankle injury had sidelined him since the Wolfhounds defeat until last Friday, when Ulster again opted to give Ruan Pienaar the kicking as well as the penalties to touch. Hosting the bottom side in the Rabo Pro 12, you’d have thought there was a case for helping Jackson and by extension Ireland.
“Like he said he was coming back from a bit of a knock so he wanted to just get back into the game then too and I always see from an outhalf’s point of view, the outhalf doesn’t have to dictate the kicks,” said Kidney diplomatically.