Ulster’s Paddy Jackson faces tough test as Matt Giteau and Toulon hit Belfast

Outhalf has point to prove after losing place in Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad

Matt Giteau was voted best player in France last season as Toulon won the Top 14 and Heineken Cup double. Photograph: Remy Gabalda/ AFP/Getty Images

Matt Giteau was voted best player in France last season as Toulon won the Top 14 and Heineken Cup double. Photograph: Remy Gabalda/ AFP/Getty Images

 

As the cards fell badly this week for Paddy Jackson and his international career, the arrival of Toulon and Matt Giteau to Belfast seems freighted with greater challenge than even a few days ago.

After Joe Schmidt played his opening hand on Wednesday without the Ulster outhalf, Giteau promises to give Jackson the chance for immediate redemption or signal approval for the Irish coach’s call that Ian Keatley, Ian Madigan and Johnny Sexton were the correct names.

The Australian is the playmaker in the Toulon side and now that the iconic Jonny Wilkinson has departed, he has moved to the number 10 position from inside centre, where he won last season’s crown as the best player in France.

The move to outhalf may well bestow even greater influence on his 32-year-old shoulders and, indeed, the former Wallaby has being going through the sweetest run of form in what should be the twilight of his career.

Ideal captain

John ConnollyMichael CheikaWorld Cup

Connolly argued that the ARU should allow Giteau to be the “exception to the rule” which prevents overseas players from representing Australia. Even more interesting given that Cheika, wearing his NSW Waratahs hat several months ago, called for the then Wallaby coach, Ewen McKenzie, to consider Kane Douglas as a member of his squad, even though the lock was leaving Australia for Leinster.

Giteau has won almost every prize on offer in Australian rugby, and was central to Toulon winning last season’s Top 14 and European Cup double. He was also part of the ACT Brumbies’ championship-winning side in 2004.

It’s been largely unforeseen, but Giteau, who swims in the Mediterranean Sea every day as part of what he has described as an idyllic life in the south of France, continues to hit new heights almost three years after leaving Australian rugby, having been overlooked for the 2011 World Cup campaign.

Irresistible

Heineken Cup

Neil Doak, the Ulster coach, understands the threat, and declines to put Jackson into a gun-slinging match with a player who has amassed 92 Test caps.

“Obviously Giteau playing at 10 is a massive threat and because he has played midfield he is pretty formidable physically as well,” says Doak. “He’s obviously got a pretty decent skill set with regards to kicking the ball and his distribution and game management, so we will have to be on the money with everything we do.

“If we can put them under pressure set-piece time and negate any quality ball they get so that they have to play off scraps . . . hopefully we can negate their style of play and make it a real tough match for them.”

“If you give quality players time and space to do whatever they want, then rest assured you are going to be under pressure. If you negate quality ball, you can put pressure on most types of players, who like time and space and can do damage if they have that.”

Ulster may try to stop the supply but Giteau scored nine tries and 84 points in Toulon’s triumphant 2013-14 Top 14 campaign, which he described as the “perfect” season. He’s also a tough player, possessing Wilkinson’s bravery but a more imposing physical presence, which is needed at 12. But as a centre or an outhalf, he’s considered by many to be the best in Europe.

“Look, if you lie back and don’t pressurise him, he will cause you some serious issues,” says Doak.

Platform to play

Giteau has also earned French respect. After the 29-14 win over Leinster in Stade Felix Mayol in April, Toulon players broke into a lap of honour to celebrate.

Giteau, seeing the visiting team were leaving the pitch, put two fingers to his mouth and let out an ear-piercing whistle. They came scampering back like obedient spaniels to clap Leinster into the tunnel.

More than just playing for Toulon as an Aussie for hire, Giteau, like Wilkinson and Trevor Brennan in Toulouse, has settled with his family and embraced the local culture and lifestyle. And it’s rewarding him.

“I’ve grown to realise in the last few years that I need to be by the sea to be truly content, and the Riviera offers everything in that respect,” he said earlier this year.

His second son, Kai, arrived a year ago to copperfasten that sense of wellbeing and satisfaction with his lot, which he has managed to transport to the pitch. “I love it here,” he said of Toulon.

Very explosive

Bernard Laporte

With his arrival today, Jackson has immediate opportunity to reclaim lost ground. No one said it would be easy.

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