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Paddy Jackson can be a perfect 10 for Ireland, says Craig Gilroy

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 09/06/2016

Step up: The door has opened for Paddy Jackson after Johnny Sexton’s injury
Step up: The door has opened for Paddy Jackson after Johnny Sexton’s injury

When Joe Schmidt names his team at lunchtime today for the first Test against South Africa at Newlands on Saturday, much of the discussion will centre on the occupant of the ten jersey.

With Johnny Sexton, Ireland's central cog and the incumbent Lions fly-half, absent with a shoulder injury that required surgery after Leinster's Pro12 final defeat, it is expected that Ulster's Paddy Jackson will be brought in from the international cold to start in his place.

Ian Madigan is the only other recognised ten in the touring party and, thanks to his impending switch to the Top 14 and Bordeaux-Begles, was not named in the original selection prior to Sexton's untimely injury.

A favourite of Schmidt in the past, Madigan's versatility has been cited as the reasoning behind Jackson's omission from frontline matchday squads since the 2014 Six Nations.

The Ulsterman has been in fine form for his province in that time, however, and has become an increasingly central figure for Les Kiss's men.

Having played outside Jackson all season at Kingspan Stadium, Craig Gilroy is sure that his former Methodist College schoolmate is ready to seize the opportunity of a starting berth.

"He's been fantastic. He's been a joy to play with," the winger said.

"It's not just off the back of this season that I say this, I played with Jacko at school, underage level, under-19s, under-20s, provincially and internationally.

"I've always rated him so highly. I always enjoy playing with him and no doubt if he gets an opportunity I think he'll take it.

"This has probably been his best season on a personal level."

Having been thrown into the Ulster side when barely out of school, Jackson is now 24 and much has been said this season of his growing presence in the dressing room.

Communication is an area of Jackson's game Gilroy sees as ever-improving.

"Not only was he able to deliver on the pitch physically, but he stepped up as a leader," he said.

"He spoke well to us guys post-game, at half-time and he talks well on the pitch and commands the plays that he wants.

"He delivers with ball-in-hand, his kicking game has been fantastic as well.

"He has that smart rugby brain to make the decisions to take the ball to the line or, if he decides to go himself, he's a tight man and he's a lot quicker than he looks.

"He's hard, Jacko. Sometimes he has a laugh at himself, but he'll get down to the nitty-gritty stuff and put his body on the line."

Gilroy himself, of course, will also be hoping for a slice of international redemption on tour having not lined out for Ireland since the November international with Georgia in 2014.

This despite the fact that nobody in the Pro12 has scored more tries over the last two seasons.

The idea that Gilroy is not the prototypical Schmidt winger has been strengthened with each omission including, originally at least, for this summer.

The Ulster flyer was drafted in only after injuries to Luke Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney and, earlier in the season, Ulster's Tommy Bowe.

He admits that Schmidt's influence has led to an increasing amount of working on his game without the ball.

"I hope to be able to do the stuff that I can do to maybe bring a little bit of X factor and give Joe what he wants as well on top of that," he said.

"He's big in the air. He wants good aerial skills, something I've been working hard on back with the province.

"He wants stuff at the breakdown, stuff like that, not just someone who's going to stand on the wing and wait for the ball, and try and do the fancy work; more of an all-round game.

"The competition in my position is vast and you just have to be that little better, have those one per cents to play for Ireland.

"I've put my head down and worked hard these last couple of seasons, and I feel like I'm getting the rewards for that.

"I didn't have any holidays booked thankfully. I looked down at my phone and had a missed call from Joe and I phoned him back right away.

"He called me into camp, I wasn't sure if I was touring or just down for the mini-camp before we left, but then he let me know I was going and I thanked him for the opportunity."

An opportunity he'll hope to make the most of this month.

Belfast Telegraph

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