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Paddy Jackson emerging as one of Ulster's most influential stars

By Michael Sadlier

THE gale is throwing itself around Ravenhill with abandon but there is still work to be done regardless of the conditions and Paddy Jackson is out on the side of the pitch with some kicking drills to polish up on before his day is done.

After hot-footing it to the ground from Jordanstown – the venue for that day's training session – the soon to be 22-year-old is going through some work down the tramlines which is, admittedly, probably preferable to having a shot at the posts which are wobbling back and forth to the wind's whims.

As Jackson fires balls down the touchline and continues to prepare for tomorrow's PRO12 interprovincial with Leinster (RDS, 6.45pm) – a game which he is involved in after being released from the Ireland get-together earlier this week – the memory of two huge games with the southern province comes to mind along with the out-half's experiences on both occasions.

His evolution to becoming one of Ulster's most influential players has been no easy ride and he has worked hard to bring his game towards the consistency required to operate at both club and international level.

Back in May 2012, his journey was still in its early stages and the then 20-year-old found himself having usurped Ian Humphreys and playing opposite Jonathan Sexton in that season's Heineken Cup final.

It was a huge ask for Jackson and he, like his team-mates, struggled to manage the task in hand as Brian McLaughlin's last game in charge ended with Ulster shipping a heavy defeat to the men in blue that day at Twickenham.

Jackson wilted that day with his kick out on the full proving costly to Ulster's cause and memorably held his hand up at the post-match shakedown when some of the players had to provide sound-bites to place alongside their gut-wrenching disappointment.

A year on from his Twickenham outing, and after shipping some flak in his first Six Nations, Jackson's growing pains continued when last May's visit to the RDS also ended in defeat with Leinster again triumphing with a trophy up for grabs, this time the PRO12 title.

But though the outcome seven months ago was pretty much the same, with Ulster on the losing end again, there was something different about Jackson's performance, never mind the fact that, unlike the previous season's European cup final, he stayed the course throughout.

Certainly having been relieved of the place-kicking duties by Ruan Pienaar had allowed the out-half focus on his other notable areas of strength such as tackling, distributing and making breaks.

One such burst during the PRO12 final saw Jackson haring through a gap and heading towards the line only for Isa Nacewa to halt his progress with a tug at Jackson's collar which frighteningly jerked Jackson backwards onto the ground.

Howls of 'penalty try' and questions afterwards about whether Nacewa should have been red-carded, instead of shown yellow, were all batted away on another day when Ulster ended up crestfallen with silverware again eluding them.

Even after the time lapse, Jackson remains diplomatic about the incident.

"I still had a long way to go and I don't think I would have made it," he says over whether there was a genuine scoring chance on before adding, "but those are the kind of games you want to play in and I think it will be tight this weekend."

And after last season's double success over Leinster in the PRO12's regulation season – which included a tremendous win at the RDS to nail down a first victory for Ulster in the Republic's capital since 1999 – Jackson, who played in both games, clearly wants another tilt at tomorrow's hosts.

"They will always be tough," he says referring to Leinster and as for all the baggage that accompanies these clashes with Ulster's PRO12 double being pretty much trumped by Leinster's Heineken Cup and PRO12 title wins, Jackson has his own slant on it all.

"I just try and focus on what I can do," he says.

"There is not much else you can do other than that and the only thing you can have any effect on is your own game and your own team's game and that is what I'll be looking to do.

"I doubt Leinster have lost three games in a row, especially in the last while," he adds about Matt O'Connor's recent run of form.

"They don't want to lose again and we certainly want to get the win there so both teams will be really fighting for it."

This season, Jackson has added a notably better place-kicking consistency to his overall game which has allowed the rather nervy young player from before to somewhat melt away into what he appears to be now; a far more complete out-half and a man who can now dictate how Ulster go about their work.

Jackson's form can hardly have escaped Ireland coach Joe Schmidt's attention and there is no better time than the present to keep his consistency intact while pushing himself to improve even further.

"The interpros add that extra bit of kick to games and everyone is looking to show what they can do out there especially at Irish level.

"I think everyone is going to be gunning for it," he adds and this is no throwaway cliché; this is how it will be.

All Jackson can do is keep pushing further by adopting, adapting and improving.

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