Paddy Jackson returns to competitive rugby with Perpignan
Irish outhalf played first game in 14 months after suspension in relation to rape trial
Perpignan’s Paddy Jackson plays a pass during their pre-season friendly with Toulouse. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Paddy Jackson produced a strong debut performance for Perpignan as his rugby exile came to an end on Thursday night.
Jackson played the opening half of their pre-season clash with Toulouse at Stade Aime Giral in what was his first appearance since he and former Ireland and Ulster teammate Stuart Olding were suspended pending their trial over the alleged rape of a student in Belfast. The pair were found not guilty at Belfast Crown Court. Jackson was also found not guilty of sexual assault
The out-half (26) had shown few signs of being out of action since winning his 25th cap for Ireland against Japan in June of last year, but Perpignan changed their entire team at the interval.
He was handed a difficult opening conversion after eight minutes when Australian Zack Holmes scored in the right corner but Jackson landed the kick and grew in confidence after that. He converted three opening half tries for a 21-7 interval lead - one from the left and another close to the posts.
Jackson is seen as the key signing by Perpignan as they return to the Top 14 following their first ever relegation four seasons ago. He was given a warm welcome by the locals in a crowd of around 7,500.
He overcooked one kick on the right but his penalty touch-finders were ambitious and accurate.
Jackson will get another runout next week against former Ireland colleagues Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan visit Stade Aime Giral before Perpignan open their Top 14 schedule at home to Paul O’Connell’s Stade Francais in two weeks.
His kicking will be key to Perpignan’s hopes of survival in the top flight and they have already being installed as one of the relegation favourites with a €16m budget which, for example, is half what Toulouse have spent for the new season.
Should Jackson grow into his new role, the fanatical Perpignan followers, most of whom are unaware or indifferent to his trial, will be quick to bestow hero status on him.
Jackson and Olding had their Ulster contracts, due to run until next June, revoked in May after a review conducted by the IRFU and Ulster following the Belfast rape trial verdict. Olding has since signed for French side Brive.
As introductions go, Jackson’s 40-minute cameo on a surface which was greasy from an afternoon of thunderstorms, could hardly have gone much better.
The result was immaterial with both sides using their full extended squads, but for the record Perpignan held on to win 21-20.