Ulster's escape to victory in stunning European Champions Cup comeback
Paddy Jackson was Ulster's hero yesterday as the province rescued their Champions Cup hopes with a record comeback from 23 points down against Oyonnax to win 24-23 in the south of France.
The out-half came on at half-time in what seemed like a lost cause but, after sparking an unlikely turnaround that saw tries from Rory Scholes, Craig Gilroy and Kyle McCall bring Ulster within touching distance, Jackson nailed a late penalty from half-way to complete the turnaround and seal a one-point win.
The victory keeps alive ambitions of a European quarter-final ahead of next weekend's trip to face familiar foes Saracens. Ulster have won their last three in the competition after being dismantled by the Londoners at home in their pool opener.
Director of Rugby Les Kiss credited skipper Rory Best with inspiring the comeback after Kiss was forced to dramatically change his starting line-up, sending out Jackson, Ruan Pienaar and Nick Williams for the second half after the original selection had been taken apart.
For Jackson, the dramatic conclusion was especially sweet having missed an equally late opportunity to snatch a victory against inter-provincial rivals Munster in the PRO12 only a week ago.
As he approached the tee, though, he says there was no doubt in his mind that he could provide the last component of the much-needed win.
"I've been striking the ball well all week and it's a firm pitch out there so my plant foot felt good," he said.
"I was just pretty confident that I felt good in the warm-up and I'd been striking the ball well previously.
"I struggled a bit last week. It's something I've come to learn that I'm going to be in these situations more often.
"If I get them, it's obviously brilliant, but if not then one minute you're the hero, one minute you're the bad guy.
"I was just absolutely delighted to get it."
The Irish international was one of three substitutes brought on for the second 40 minutes, along with Nick Williams and the exceptional Ruan Pienaar, and he admitted that frank words were exchanged at the half-time interval, with skipper Rory Best leading the call for stark improvement.
"To be fair to Rory, the way he got the boys rallied in the changing room at half-time was something special," pointed out Jackson.
"I've never been in a situation like that before where we've been so far behind and to see Rory get the boys going was something pretty special to watch.
"There were a few heads looking down at the floor at half-time and I can't repeat some of the words Rory actually used, but you could see the fire in his eyes and how much this club means to him, and how big this game was.
"He's been talking about history all week and I think it's the first time we've won in France twice in one season.
"He just said at half-time that we're going to have to go out and win.
"We've got 40 minutes to do it… with a lot more swear words!"
The victory over Oyonnax moves Ulster onto 13 points, and the province now have a great chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals as one of three best runners-up, if not overhauling Saracens at the top of the pool.
With a trip to face the Sarries this weekend, Jackson is well aware of the game's importance while also insisting that the side want to make amends for the humbling defeat at the hands of the Londoners that began the Euro campaign.
"We're definitely going to look at the first-half and there's a lot to work on from last week and this week, so going to Saracens is going to be a huge task," he added. "The way they embarrassed us at home the last time is going to be something we'll want to remedy."