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Paddy Jackson is up for the big occasion

By Michael Sadlier

He's fairly chilled about all the hype surrounding yet another season-defining tilt at Leinster and the ever increasing focus on him being the key figure in Ulster's plans.

Paddy Jackson shrugs his shoulders and accepts that this is just the nature of what the game is all about. It's now pretty much the end of the season and, with Ulster still being alive, the stage simply gets bigger and the stakes rise.

In fact, the 22-year-old admits to enjoying the pressure and the added bite that comes from having to perform at an even more rarified level to win tonight's play-off at the RDS – the scene of last year's losing final – and then hopefully have the opportunity to to do the same for the final showdown at the end of the month.

"I just love playing in the big games. The atmosphere in the final last year was awesome and I don't imagine it will be much different this weekend."

"It's been a relatively good season for me and I want to finish it on a high. Hopefully there are two games left and I'll certainly be putting everything into them," Jackson says.

And as for all the Ireland stuff swirling around on whether there is a place for him on the summer tour to Argentina, with Jonathan Sexton wanting to be on board and Ian Madigan also around, well, that's just all peripheral to finally getting one over on Leinster in a key knockout game.

As Jackson points out: "We know we can beat them, it's just transferring that to the big games which we haven't done yet."

And, referring to last year's regulation season win which brought Ulster a first victory for 14 years over the southern province in their own back yard, he adds: "I think we can take confidence from that as well and if we accept that we are just as good, if not better than them, we can go on and win.

"I won't be going in, though, thinking I have to get one over on anyone.

"You just want to play your own game and and that is all we as a team can really do," Jackson says, before admitting that, actually, it would also be rather useful to further impress Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.

"You don't want to ever look too far ahead, but I'd love to be going on it (the Ireland tour) and if I have a good game this weekend, well, it can't hurt my chances."

This is a player at greater ease with himself and yet also single-mindedly determined to keep pushing on and improving as he continues to develop his worth as an out-half who possesses match-winning pedigree.

His performances have certainly shown greater consistency of late with three PRO12 man of the match awards being collected over his last seven games, with the 20 points Jackson racked up the last time Ulster played Leinster – a mere fortnight ago at Ravenhill – being particularly notable on an evening when he went head-to-head with Ireland rival Madigan, the man who surprisingly replaced him on Ireland's bench for the Six Nations showdown in Paris, and won the contest hands down.

Jackson smiles when reminded of his try in the corner which saw him charge-down a Madigan kick just moments before being poleaxed by Rob Kearney's horribly high tackle, which only saw the Ireland full-back punished by receiving 10 minutes in the bin.

Indeed, the incident was somewhat similar to last May's PRO12 final when then Leinster full-back Isa Nacewa pulled Jackson backwards to the ground by grabbing his collar after the Ulsterman had made a searing break for the line.

It begs the question that the young out-half might just be a marked man when it comes to Leinster flattening him with dubious tackles.

"I don't know if it is my height or if they are actually going for me," Jackson says with a smile before adding: "Those incidents both happened after I'd made breaks so if I make a few more and get high tackled, well, I'm not worried."

However, his generally relaxed demeanour undergoes a slight alteration when place-kicking duty is brought up and whether he will be continuing in the primary role if Ruan Pienaar comes onto the pitch tonight.

"At the moment I have made the decision that I'm kicking until someone says otherwise," is Jackson's response.

"I'll maybe just stay quiet and see what happens," he adds with a touch of humour before closing the subject by saying: "In my mind I'm kicking and Ruan is always there for the long ones, but I'm looking forward to kicking at goal in a big game."

So all is set up then for another titanic tussle between the provincial rivals with Ulster going in off the back of last weekend's notable win at Munster when what was essentially a shadow side turned over Paul O'Connell et al in their Limerick fortress.

Indeed. last Saturday, it was another out-half who stole the show with Rotherham-bound James McKinney nailing an immaculate 14 points from the tee on a dreadful day for kicking. It was duly noted by all the frontline squad members, including Jackson.

"They did brilliantly and they have set a bit of a bar for us by putting in all that hard work," he states before getting back to the matter in hand.

"I haven't come away with any silverware yet and that is the next stage."

The big occasion awaits him.

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