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Jackson's top billing under major threat

While Ulster's big RaboDirect PRO12 clash with Leinster at the RDS on Saturday night (6.15pm) promises to be a scrap to savour, one particular battle within the overall war stands out.

It's the Paddy Jackson versus Ian Madigan stand-off of the stand-off halves, with both anxious to prove important points ahead of Ireland's summer schedule in north America.

The end of the Ronan O'Gara era came during the just-ended Six Nations campaign, with Ulster's Jackson coming through to oust Ireland's most capped player of all time.

While O'Gara's star waned, that of Jackson waxed. With Jonny Sexton injured, the Methodist College old boy started against Scotland, France and Italy, finishing the series with three caps.

But Madigan joined the fray from the bench against the French and the Italians, tossing his hat into the ring, too.

And since the series ended, 24-year-old Madigan has had rather the better of things.

When Jackson returned to Ulster duty against Edinburgh at Murrayfield on Friday night, he finished with one on-target goal out of five attempts.

Madigan's performance for Leinster against Glasgow less than 24 hours later at the RDS was rather more impressive – a try, which he converted, plus five penalties adding up to all of his side's points in a 22-17 win which saw the Irish province leapfrog the Scots and Ulster to go top.

As a result, the consensus was that had Ireland been naming a side to play this weekend, Madigan would be wearing the 10 shirt, with his northern rival on the bench rather than the other way round.

Madigan also emerged from the shambles which was Rome on March 16 with his reputation enhanced as a result of his very good shift at inside-centre when injuries to Luke Marshall, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald created a crisis in midfield. So now it's the Dubliner who is on the crest of the wave.

But there is a lot more to Saturday night's first versus third scrap than the Jackson v Madigan head-to-head.

Leinster's failure to make the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup, of which they have been winners for each of the past two seasons, saw some rush to pen their obituary.

That was rather premature, for two bonus point wins against Scarlets and Exeter Chiefs suggested that had they had some of their missing marquee players back just a tad earlier, things might well have been very different.

Suggestions – which surfaced around Christmas – that Ulster had surpassed Leinster to become the new top dogs of Irish rugby were certainly duly noted in Dublin.

And on Saturday night the hosts' desire to rubbish that idea will dwarf even that Madigan-Jackson fight.

Belfast Telegraph