Rising star Paddy Jackson is eyeing a final shot at glory
Baby-faced assassin poised to shoot down Leinster dream
Paddy Jackson apologised profusely. He didn't need to. He was delayed for our interview due to a meeting about tactics.
In the great scheme of things him getting the lowdown about the best way to hurt Leinster in today's Heineken Cup final was more important than a chat with me, so I wasn't bothered.
Still, I appreciated the gesture, which showed that the class shown by Ulster's 20-year-old out half on the pitch extends to off it as well.
Manners maketh the man. Clearly Paddy's parents have done a fine job. It goes without saying that everyone here will be cheering on Ulster in the All-Ireland showdown at Twickenham, but away from the patriotic fervour another reason Brian McLaughlin's team deserves our support is that from what I've seen they seem genuinely decent guys. The boy Jackson is a great example of that. He doesn't tend to do interviews with Ulster's hierarchy perhaps wisely easing him in given that he is still only a kid, but he speaks well, clearly loves what he does and is determined to get better.
It was a big call from coach McLaughlin to start Jackson at number 10 in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh at the Aviva stadium instead of the more experienced Ian Humphreys, but it proved to be a wise decision as Paddy played his part in a memorable victory engineered by a magnificent performance from scrum-half Ruan Pienaar.
“The semi-final was incredible. I remember seeing all the Ulster flags coming out of the tunnel. The crowd was amazing that day. I was nervous but Ruan had a brilliant game so it took a lot of the pressure away from me. It was great to be part of such an important victory,” said Jackson, who in the post match lap of honour was almost hugged to death by his jubilant pals in the stands.
“I saw a lot of familiar faces walking around the ground after the match including my parents. It was quite emotional.”
When talking about the final the former Methody pupil, who played in two Schools’ Cup winning sides, uses that standard sporting safeguard phrase ‘if selected’. Baby faced and only out of his teens he may be, but there's a maturity about Jackson who deserves to start today in the biggest match of his young life.
“There's been a really good build up to the final. We were in Portugal last week which I enjoyed. We relaxed but also got some really good training in so it was a worthwhile trip,” he says, joking that his freckles are out because of the Portuguese sun.
Injured earlier in the season, Jackson has come back strong and is now ready for a big finish at a stadium he has only ever seen on television.
“The spirit amongst the boys is incredible. Everyone is buzzing about the final,” says one of the most exciting prospects in Irish rugby.
“We know it is going to be a tough game because they are the best team in Europe at the moment. They are the champions looking to defend their trophy, so they have plenty of incentive but we have lots too and we're going there to win.
“I feel lucky to be playing in a team with fantastic players all over the pitch — you look at the work-rate of Chris Henry which is incredible and the skills that Ruan has. What he has done for Ulster this season has been awesome. Johann Muller is a great leader and so is Rory Best. We have a lot of strong players in the squad.”
Jackson is relishing locking horns with opposite number Jonny Sexton today as well as facing Brian O'Driscoll, his hero growing up, but there will be no inferiority complex for this boy wonder who made his Ulster debut last season and has shown a wide range of skills since, including an ability to tackle hard.
“Brian McLaughlin giving me my chance has been unbelievable for my confidence. The fact that he selected me for the semi-final gives me faith that he and the coaching staff trust me,” says Jackson. “When I was at school I always pictured myself as a running out-half and I still like to run the ball if the time is right but once you progress to this level it is a totally different game. I'm learning all the time. My kicking game is an area that I have to work on, both in terms of tactical kicking and place kicking. That's a big focus for me and I want to improve on it.
“Rugby is what I've always wanted to do. I always wanted to break through to the Ulster team as soon as I could but I suppose I didn't think it would happen this quickly.
“Our backs coach Neil Doak helps me a lot with the calls and patterns and trying to influence a match. With every game I play I feel as if I'm getting better.”
Having the brilliant Pienaar beside him clearly helps.
“Ruan is one of the best players in the world,” he added. “It's great playing with him. He is very calm and that helps me stay calm. Having Paddy (Wallace) and Darren (Cave) outside me at centre is good too because they are very vocal and help me a lot.”
Like all the Ulster players, Paddy will have plenty of support from friends and family, who he describes as being “obsessed with rugby”.
Older brother Paul plays at hooker for Dungannon while his dad was a prop. The Jackson family used to live in Sutton Coldfield in Birmingham where Paddy played a lot of football. Once they returned to Northern Ireland, when he was eight, rugby dominated and he hasn't looked back since.
“If selected” this cool, talented, mannerly youngster won't let his team down.