Jackson deserves second chance
With the Ronan O'Gara era now over, the way is clear for Ulster's Paddy Jackson to mount a challenge for the throne the former king of Ireland's kickers has lost.
The 32-strong Irish squad which reassembled on Sunday night at Carton House did not include O'Gara – 36 on Thursday – and that must have felt very strange indeed to those meeting up in Co Kildare.
For although he had been playing second fiddle to Jonny Sexton since the Leinster fly-half made a remarkable Ireland bow against Fiji in November 2009 at the RDS, up until two days ago O'Gara was an ever-present in Irish squads for 13 years.
But now the scrap for what he has left begins in earnest, with 21-year-old Jackson to the fore. That is because when a hamstring injury picked up by Sexton in the first half of Ireland's 12-6 home defeat by England on February 10 ruled him out of the game against Scotland at Murrayfield a fortnight later, it was Jackson, not O'Gara, who got the nod to start.
While one out of four goal-kicks was hardly a dream launch to an international career, that has to be measured alongside the fact that Ruan Pienaar, not Jackson, has been doing that job for Ulster.
But on Friday night, back in the colours of his province, Jackson put his hand up high when asked to kick. He served up a man of the match display in which he bagged 19 of his side's 29 points against Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill.
Goal-kicking is an art perfected as a result of relaxed rhythm and routine which only comes about as a result of regular rehearsal before delivering on the big stage-proper at show-time. The pressure, the tension, the responsibility of the match situation cannot be replicated at Newforge. A kicker only learns to handle that as a result of experience accrued and confidence gained in the heat of battle.
The situation in which Jackson found himself in Edinburgh could not have been more testing. In Ireland's interests, clearly he needs to be kicking for Ulster.
Against Treviso, he did, and Ulster stressed that rather than it having been a decision forced on them by Ireland coach Declan Kidney or the IRFU, they had offered to re-instate Jackson as their first-choice goal-kicker. The young man did not let them down, for having missed his first kick he nailed the next four, just failed with another from 45 metres and then landed three more.
Afterwards Jackson admitted that the recent past has been something of an up and down ride.
"It's been a long couple of weeks, a bit of a roller-coaster really with emotions and stuff," he said. "Obviously chuffed to get my first cap. Loved it. And if I get another one I'll be even more chuffed."
Confirming that it had been "very important" to be entrusted with the responsibility of kicking once again for Ulster in the wake of his debut as an international, he pointed out: "That's the first time that I've kicked two games in a row for ... I can't really remember how long.
"I was very nervous at the start, obviously there's a lot of pressure going into the game. I missed the first one but once I started to get a few over I just felt much more comfortable," he added, underlining just how big a part rhythm and confidence play in the process. "I was happy with the ones I got."
The word from within Carton House is that Sexton will not be fit to return on Saturday to face some of those who will be his team-mates next season when he is plying his trade in France. If so, Jackson almost certainly will start, with Leinster's Ian Madigan is the role of understudy.
With 33 Ulster outings and 178 points to his credit already, Jackson certainly will not lack company or familiarity this week in Co Kildare where the 32 include eight of his provincial team-mates.
Irish-qualified South African Robbie Diack is delighted to be enjoying his first taste at this level and Andrew Trimble and Dan Tuohy are equally happy to have been recalled.
The other notherners are Rory Best, Declan Fitzpatrick, Iain Henderson, Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy. But for injury, Chris Henry, Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe would have featured, too.
With the team to face France on Saturday being announced today, Ulster look like having starters in Best, Jackson, Marshall and Gilroy. But loose-head Cian Healy's availability following a successful appeal against the length of his suspension for stamping on England's Dan Cole saw Tom Court omitted even though he, not Munster's Dave Kilcoyne, started against the Scots.