Joe Schmidt maintains he is confident Paddy Jackson can pass his big Test
From outside of the squad last season to starting outside-half... Paddy Jackson looks set to play a huge role in Ireland's tour of South Africa after Johnny Sexton was ruled out through injury.
Ulsterman Jackson didn't feature for Joe Schmidt during the Six Nations, and was limited to a cameo role in the World Cup, but with Sexton now facing three months on the sidelines thanks to shoulder surgery, the former Dungannon RFC man will likely fill the 10 jersey when Ireland meet the Springboks in Cape Town next Saturday for the first of three Tests.
The 24-year-old finished the season in superb form for Ulster, with both team-mates and Director of Rugby Les Kiss praising his increased leadership throughout the campaign, but he has not had game-time in a frontline Irish squad since Italy in the 2014 Six Nations with Schmidt citing Ian Madigan's versatility as the reason behind the omissions.
While Madigan was added to the 32-man touring party yesterday in light of Sexton's injury, his move from Leinster to Bordeaux is still expected to see Jackson given a chance first up as Ireland seek their first ever win in South Africa.
Schmidt said yesterday that he had every confidence in Jackson despite his past selections.
"I don't think we can live with regrets," he reflected. "At the time Johnny played really well and we needed the multi-cover off the bench from Ian Madigan because we tended to lose players during those games.
"At the same time, Paddy was in and out of camp during that time so he was certainly up to speed in terms of what we were doing. There was probably a real upsurge in his form.
"He was running a team (Ulster) that he was the experienced player in. The old guys like Rory (Best) weren't there. He really took the team by the scruff of the neck and I think he grew during that period.
"There is always a silver lining and Paddy made the most of that. That showed in his end of season form."
Ireland and Ulster captain Rory Best has no doubts that Jackson is ready to step up and influence games on the Test stage the way he so frequently does at the Kingspan Stadium.
"I spoke a lot towards the end of the season about how much he has learned from Johnny," said the hooker. "The way he conducts himself around Ulster is learning from the way Johnny conducts himself in this (Irish) environment.
"He knows the plays and runs the plays, he has confidence in that. It's a big opportunity for him, there's no doubt.
"It's a big shirt to fill with what Johnny has done for Ireland and for Leinster but it's a chance for Jacko to come in and put his own slant on it.
"He's surrounded by people that he knows, he's been involved in the camps, he's played a few Tests.
"He has the confidence of the group, there is no doubt.
"In terms of that, it's an opportunity to come in and continue the form that he showed at the tail-end of the season for Ulster."
The loss of Sexton wasn't the only bad news announced by Ireland yesterday with Rob and Dave Kearney also joining the Leinster playmaker and the already confirmed absentee Luke Fitzgerald on the sidelines.
As a result, Craig Gilroy, Matt Healy and Tiernan O'Halloran were summoned along with Madigan.
Gilroy's inclusion brings the Ulster contingent in the touring party to nine and Schmidt added that the loss of experienced figures was a blow but that he expected those called up to inject some excitement into the panel.
In Gilroy and Healy, the squad now boasts the PRO12's two leading try-scorers from last season.
"It certainly doesn't change expectations and expectations are never based around results, as much as that's how we're judged," the Kiwi said. "We can't control all the variables around the results.
"If we lose that experience, hopefully that can be compensated with the excitement those guys bring.
"When you lose experience you can often gain excitement and there's some really excited young players.
"My expectation is that the players will work hard, they'll unite really effectively under Rory's leadership and that we will be competitive.
"Whether that proves to be enough or not, we'll find out on June 11, 18 and 25."