Belfast Telegraph

Paddy Jackson is lining up a return to Irish duty

By Jonathan Bradley

Paddy Jackson admits that when he was told two weeks ago he'd be returning to Ulster to feature against Dragons rather than take on Wales in Ireland's Six Nations opener, it felt like his World Cup disappointment all over again.

Ahead of the province's PRO12 clash with Scarlets at the Kingspan on Sunday, the young out-half has been the form No.10 in Ireland since enduring the frustration of logging only 20 minutes at the tournament - and sitting idly by among the replacements for the duration of Ireland's quarter-final exit at the hands of Argentina.

But that has not been enough to dislodge Ian Madigan from the role of Jonathan Sexton's primary back-up in the national team.

The Bordeaux-bound Leinster back has been named in the 22 jersey for the first two rounds of Ireland's disappointing Championship defence, and it's proved to be another setback on the Test stage for a young player in Jackson who could hardly be more integral to his side's efforts at provincial level.

After being thrown in at the deep end with a start against Scotland in the ill-fated final Six Nations of Declan Kidney's tenure back in 2013, Jackson served as Sexton's understudy for the first four games of 2014 only to be outside the panel for the Championship clincher against France in Paris.

An elbow injury cost him further caps during last season's Championship - an injured Sexton was replaced by Ian Keatley for the away day in Rome - and then came his underwhelming five-week experience at the World Cup.

Having allowed himself to temporarily bemoan his misfortune, Jackson is now determined not to allow the most recent setback to knock him from his current trajectory.

"It's been very frustrating," he admitted. "I thought I'd possibly done enough to get into that match-day squad but it wasn't meant to be.

"Missing out on the World Cup, I felt like I was back in that same position again. Initially I was gutted and really frustrated but then I shook it off and decided I had to keep my head down. All I can affect now is how I play at Ulster and that's what I'm going to focus on."

Speaking with real determination, and a confidence that comes only from being on top of his game, Jackson says he's ready to seize any opportunity in green that does eventually come his way.

"If I get the chance with Ireland in the next few weeks I'll be delighted, and I'll make sure I take it," he stated.

"I just keep telling myself I've worked really hard since the World Cup to get to where I am now so I'm not going to let this stop me.

"I'm going to keep pushing ahead and keep working as hard as I can."

Having logged a cumulative 80 minutes as a second-half substitute over the last two weeks, Jackson has been happy to maintain a rhythm he felt he lost during the World Cup despite making frequent journeys between Carton House and the Kingspan Stadium.

"Coming back from the World Cup, I found it quite hard to get in the swing of things, even though I didn't play," he said.

"It was just the whole process, starting again with pre-season, but it only comes through with the games.

"Fortunately I've played a lot of rugby now which I'm delighted with.

"That was all I wanted to do when I came back from the World Cup, get as many games as possible.

"Thankfully due to injury and selection I've done that. You can start to feel a bit tired but I'm feeling great.

"I just want to keep playing. I've been down in Irish camp training, when I'm not with Ulster I'm in Dublin but you can never complain, it's a short career."

While Jackson's play with ball in hand has excited throughout this campaign, his most dramatic moments have been from the tee, securing a memorable come-from-behind win against Oyonnax in the Champions Cup and sealing another late victory over Dragons two weeks ago.

While a similar chance, if from a more testing angle and wet conditions, against Munster went begging, Jackson has embraced the pressure of being given the ball in the big moments after Ruan Pienaar handled the kicking duties in the early stages of his career.

"I don't think it's something I've added necessarily," said the man who has been praised by team-mates for his increasing leadership this year.

"You can only get used to it with experience. Deep breaths, that's what's important. It's just that I've had the opportunities in the big moments. This time last season there were three or four games in a row where we were one shot at goal away from having the chance to win the game but it never came.

"This year, we've been in that situation and it's only when you experience it that you can build confidence in the situation.

"It's something I'm glad I've been exposed to more this season. I missed the one against Munster and that was the other side of it. It's trying to block out the outcomes and focus on the process. You just have to breathe.

"That brings it back to the routine, something you've been doing forever and what you do every day out in training."

With a week of training behind him, even if he had to overcome an early illness, Jackson will expect to feature against Scarlets on Sunday as he aims to consolidate Ulster's position atop the PRO12.

Domestic silverware is all that Jackson thinks will make up for the province's failure to progress beyond their pool in the Champions Cup.

"All the games now are huge; for me personally I feel like we really messed up not getting out of our group in Europe, we let that slip," he added. "It's really disappointing and frustrating for everyone so I'm treating every game as a big one. We can't let any points slip.

"We're holding up the fort in the meantime and we'll get a few boys back from the international squad and we can push on for the business end."

And should Sunday come down to a last minute penalty? He'll just take a deep breath.

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