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Johnny Sexton is now a man under pressure after Paddy Jackson shone at Kingspan

By Tony Ward

Published 12/05/2015

Spoilt for choice: Joe Schmidt can rely on Johnny Sexton but Paddy Jackson is giving the Ireland coach food for thought
Spoilt for choice: Joe Schmidt can rely on Johnny Sexton but Paddy Jackson is giving the Ireland coach food for thought

It would be stretching it to suggest a star was born at the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday, but certainly a potential first-choice Ireland No 10 came of age.

At 23 and with nine caps already in the locker, Paddy Jackson could scarcely be described as wet around the ears and yet a sense of excitement surrounded a performance that, while still far from complete, was brimming with promise.

Make no mistake, Jackson has what it takes to establish himself as Ireland's back-up out-half for the World Cup.

And more than that, there are definite signs that he will be good enough to challenge Johnny Sexton - currently the best No 10 in the world - for a place in the not too distant future.

Sexton is by some way the best out-half available to Joe Schmidt at the moment but I see enough in the still developing Ulster tyro to suggest that he can become a game-managing string-puller over and above the ordinary.

What he lacks at present is a kicking game to match the thought process so clearly at work in the white heat of action.

He is the most natural out-half to play for Ulster since David Humphreys - who was for me the most gifted player to represent the province apart from the incomparable Jackie Kyle, and I include Mike Gibson in his out-half days in that assessment.

Humphreys was hugely under-rated outside Ulster, and so too now is Jackson.

I still maintain that Humphreys in his pomp for Ireland was at least the equal if not better than his nemesis Ronan O'Gara, although the Munster man rightly hits legendary status on the basis of consistency and longevity over an extraordinary career.

Jackson's greatest strength is the incredibly smooth and lightning-quick link he provides between Ruan Pienaar and the outside backs. In terms of accuracy and sensitivity for the needs of others, his passing is in the Paul Dean class.

Deano couldn't kick snow off a rope, but when it came to dictating a game and opening up the opposition through clever dexterity, his hands did the talking. O'Gara too had that amazing ability to invite others through a gap they may not have seen prior to hitting the cleverly weighted pass.

Where Jackson scores over Dean is in a kicking game that is still a work in progress. The raw material is in place and will develop with experience.

And if anyone doubted his ability to kick goals under pressure - and there have been issues on big occasions in times past - those concerns were surely dispelled at Ravenhill on Saturday.

In fairness to Ian Keatley, the Munster playmaker lost little in their private head-to-head, not least in terms of marksmanship, but the difference in distributive precision was marked.

Schmidt will have registered this game big time. The pecking order was Sexton, Ian Madigan and then Keatley, with the selection of Keatley ahead of Madigan against Italy in the opening game of the Six Nations - when Sexton was unavailable - confirming the head coach's reservations over the versatile Leinster man's game management. Madigan is still good enough to make the World Cup squad and I believe will, but Jackson is the only man who can really put pressure on Sexton.

Beyond that, Anthony Foley and Munster will be bitterly disappointed at letting this one slip away.

On the plus side, Dan Tuohy was again a powerful presence and that too will not have been lost on the watching Schmidt.

Iain Henderson continued on his powerful upward curve and on outflanked Peter O'Mahony. His late sending off - whether reckless or malicious - was downright stupid. Peter Nelson and Stuart McCloskey provide further proof that Ulster Academy is in good order.

McCloskey is just 22, but his gain-line breaking ability - through a combination of raw strength and clever angled running - could see him in the Ireland set-up sooner rather than later.

As against Leinster, he provided the late forward momentum which on this occasion produced a magnificent pass to Paul Marshall for the try that, with Jackson's nerveless conversion, saved the match. A fitting outcome all round.

Belfast Telegraph

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