Paddy Jackson's in the frame to start against Wales
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is set to hand Ulster’s Paddy Jackson his chance to impress ahead of the Rugby World Cup in Saturday’s preparation against Wales in Cardiff. Andrew Trimble may also make his return from injury when Schmidt names his team today.
Munster pair Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan look set to win their first caps since the defeat to Italy in March 2013. Earls and Ryan have both been plagued with injury since the New Zealander took over but could be given an opportunity to shine at the Millennium Stadium.
Schmidt will follow Warren Gatland’s lead and name an experimental side for the first of four warm-up games, with Jamie Heaslip expected to lead in Paul O’Connell’s absence and Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Mike Ross lending experience in the front-row.
Ryan could be partnered by Ulster’s Iain Henderson in the second-row, while Dan Tuohy remains another option.
Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy could come in alongside Heaslip in the back-row, while Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan are vying for the scrum-half slot to partner Jackson who finished last season in fine fettle and will hope to lay down a marker in his battle with Ian Madigan for the right to back up Johnny Sexton next month.
Schmidt could be tempted to pick Earls in the centre when he names his team at 1.50 this afternoon, with Gordon D’Arcy and Darren Cave also vying for a midfield berth.
Fergus McFadden is another who could be afforded an opportunity to impress on the wing.
Although Jackson missed the entire international campaign last term, including Ireland’s successful defence of the Six Nations crown, he firmly believes that he can battle by right to become Ireland’s first-choice.
“I want to challenge the number one position as well, definitely,” stresses Jackson, hoping to find autumn form to match that of spring when he belatedly sparkled during Ulster’s run-in to banish memories of an injury-ruined season.
“All I’m thinking about is my own game. No matter what the other players do, it can’t affect me if I’m not focusing on my own game.
“If I can play as well as I can, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be in the squad starting at 10. That’s where my focus has to be.
“Obviously Ian Madigan can cover a lot of the other positions, 12 and 15, even nine. I can’t really base where I stand on too much because I haven’t really been involved since the Six Nations a couple of seasons ago.
“Joe played me on the bench then and he had Ian as a utility replacement which is always useful. But listen, we’re all thinking the same, if we get a chance we need to perform to get on that plane.
“It can be an uncertain position, when you’re a back-up for only one position. You don’t know what Joe is going to go for. He could end up choosing any of us really. It’s a tough call for him as much as it is tough for us.”
Jackson’s ability to take the ball to the line has always been evident; even during his 2013 breakthrough under Declan Kidney, when most of the country were fulminating at Ronan O’Gara’s demotion, Jackson’s attacking thrust in that otherwise ghastly 2013 debut against the Scots was overshadowed by faux outrage.
His kicking responsibilities remain a factor that may undermine his ambitions; at provincial level, he is still not entrusted to be the number one man from the tee and that will mitigate against him staking a realistic claim to be Ireland’s number one in the near future.
He got some opportunities towards the end of last year as Ruan Pienaar palled somewhat; just not enough.
“It’s not ideal, I want to be kicking in every game I play,” he admits. “Missing out on so much rugby, it was a big ask for me to push Ruan aside and resume the kicking. I just wanted to focus on my game but I did get a chance to place-kick which was nice.”
An intensive discussion on his kicking technique reveals that one doesn’t always have to hit the ball hard to find the target.
“You can even hit it at 60pc of your full strength and be successful,” he explains. “It’s all about your posture and position at impact. Standing tall. Chest out.”
Which pretty much sums up how he intends to address his World Cup selection challenge.