Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Ulster Rugby: Paddy Jackson a class act

Paddy Jackson is progressing into a key component of Mark Anscombe's Ulster side

Paddy Jackson – David Patrick Lindsay James Jackson to give him his lengthy birth certificate title – is having to learn quickly about life as a young sporting icon.

Any high-profile personality who ticks the two most important boxes – hugely talented with no unwanted baggage attached – is going to be in demand. In today's world, that goes with the territory, a fact Ulster's 21-year-old outside-half accepts.

In keeping with his high-profile status and the impressively clean image he projects, he has been recruited to front the competition to find Northern Ireland's safest young driver using an in-car 'black box' to scrutinise their behaviour behind the wheel.

"Young people hold the key to road safety and rewarding young motorists for good driving – rather than highlighting the consequences of bad driving – will help improve our lifelong driving skills," Jackson said.

"This competition is designed to do just that, and, as someone who has been driving for only a few years, I'm delighted to be involved."

For one so young, he is remarkably level-headed and responsible. That said, he smiles at the suggestion that he has come of age this season with his on-field form having been top notch.

"It's a long season and my first game didn't go too well. But I've been happy with the way I've been playing. People can look at my game from an outside perspective, but it's a team sport and with Ulster having been gelling well it has been going good for us," he says, stressing the importance of the group as a whole rather than his as an individual.

A stand-out feature of his game to date this season has been his outstanding defence. By today's standards, he is not a particularly big man – 5ft 11in and 13st 12lb – but, when it matters, he is courage and commitment incarnate in tackling way above his weight. A weak link? Forget it.

"I enjoy that side of the game, getting stuck in. Not being the biggest player, I know I'm going to be targeted. Opposing teams often target the 10 channel, but tackling is something I've always been confident of doing.

"It can be hard sometimes when some of those big fellas are running at you, but you've just got to go low and try to bring them down. You do what you can," is his modest assessment of his selfless bravery in defence of the line.

Asked about the responsibility attached to his role as his team's pattern-and-pace-setter, he is equally matter-of-fact.

"If you play well and the team wins, sometimes as an out-half you get all the praise," he says. "But if the team loses, you get all the negative comments.

"It's something I've just had to deal with in the past few years; it comes with the position. I'm confident in how I can play and I think the coaches and the (other) players are as well.

"At the end of the day there's a lot of hard work goes in that nobody else sees, but you've just got to be confident.

"I'm confident in my ability. I'm still learning – I'm learning from every experience – and I know that if I keep putting the work in it's going to pay off."

I wondered if, with hindsight, he felt being pitched into a Heineken Cup final as a 20-year-old had helped or hindered his development?

"That seems ages ago now," he muses, before adding: "I wouldn't change that experience.

"It was only my second Heineken game (his first was the 2012 semi-final against Edinburgh at a packed Aviva Stadium) and I got a lot of the blame.

"But when you look at it, we went into that game against a really strong Leinster side. It wasn't a great performance as a whole that day. I got a lot of flak for it, but that's something I've learned to take.

"I think playing in that final has stood me in good stead. I personally didn't think I had the worst game – just a few mistakes which you can't really do at that level. But when you're in there at such a young age, that's something you have to deal with.

"I would never take that back. I mean, how many people get to play in a Heineken Cup final?"

There speaks a young man who, even now, has achieved more than most could ever dream of – and still has the world at his feet.

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