Champions Cup: Paddy Jackson is determined to conjure up Euro magic
After finally notching a first away win of the season against Dragons on Sunday, Ulster's Paddy Jackson is relishing a return to European action when the Champions Cup begins this weekend.
In the final game of three consecutive road trips, the province travel to France for a meeting with top table newcomers Oyonnax on Saturday afternoon.
The side from the Alps currently sit just one place from bottom in the Top14 but have already beaten Bordeaux-Begles and Pau at the Stade Charles Mathon this season.
For Ulster, the need to make a strong start is evident after losing all three games away from the Kingspan in the competition a year ago en route to a first pool stage exit since 2010.
Out-half Jackson, who suffered a nasty dislocated elbow against Toulon when Ulster last crossed the Channel, has been a regular in the No.10 jersey since assuming the position during the memorable run to 2012's Heineken Cup final but admits that he still gets caught up in the magic of continental competition.
"Europe always has that added X-factor to it and we're champing at the bit to get at Oyonnax," enthused Jackson.
"With not doing too well in Europe last year, it's a big goal for us to start well."
Victory at Rodney Parade, their first away win since April and coming after reverses on the road at Scarlets, Edinburgh and Munster to start the season, has left Ulster's PRO12 position looking decidedly healthier entering the European break with Jackson hopeful that improved form beyond Belfast will see the side build on their standing in the table.
"Those (lack of) away wins meant we fell away a bit," he said.
"We're used to being a bit higher up the table but it's a long season and we've got boys back now (from the World Cup).
"Once we get some of the injured guys back as well things will start ticking along nicely for us."
With Jared Payne and Iain Henderson both sure to miss at least the meeting with Oyonnax and next week's big clash with Saracens, and Tommy Bowe out for even longer, Ulster start their European assault without some seasoned campaigners but, after playing alongside the likes of Stephen Mulholland and Kyle McCall in Newport, Jackson is convinced that squad players are ready to step up in the absence of the international stars.
"We're relying on the depth of our squad now. I thought Kyle McCall was brilliant (against Dragons)," Jackson added.
"For people who don't see the behind the scenes work, Kyle is a good friend of mine who I've played with since 20s, and he's probably one of the hardest workers in our squad.
"To have a prop, having to scrum and maul, and then running lines off me is brilliant."
The nature of Sunday's victory, hard-earned and at a ground where Ulster have traditionally struggled, will have pleased new Director of Rugby Les Kiss and Jackson admitted that the late defensive stand, lasting six minutes before Rory Best secured the game-ending turnover, required a huge amount of steel that hasn't always been evident on the team's travels this season.
"It was pretty tough," he reflected.
"We were starting to get control, got a couple of scores on the board and stretched ahead, but then unfortunately my dropped ball and losing Rory to the sin bin put us under pressure.
"It's something that we talked about at half-time, how mistakes and ill-discipline could let them into the game, and it almost did in the end.
"It's very difficult, especially with a young side.
"You have the crowd on your back and the conditions are tough but massive credit to the boys for holding them out."
Jackson was especially pleased by the character displayed to come back from an early 9-0 deficit, the ultimate difference in the 19-12 win provided by his 14-point haul from the boot despite one wayward effort.
"We started poorly but going in 9-6 down at half-time wasn't the worst thing at all," he said.
"We got the first try against Dragons this season and fair play to them, they're tough to beat at home.
"I think we talked about letting Munster off the hook last week, not playing the back third well, and I think it was better from us this time.
"(The one missed kick) was a bit of a miss-hit from me, the wind definitely died down in the second-half and I think my alignment was off.
"I was disappointed but happy I was able to re-focus myself for the next two kicks."