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Irish stars now look to Paddy Jackson as real leader: Coach Simon Easterby

By Jonathan Bradley

Back where it all began four years ago, Paddy Jackson will once again be centre stage for Ireland come Saturday afternoon.

Joe Schmidt's men meet Scotland in Murrayfield (2.25pm kick-off) to begin their Six Nations campaign, with the Ulsterman now set to be in the No.10 jersey after Jonathan Sexton was ruled out through injury.

The visitors had hoped that their usual out-half would be able to shake off a calf problem picked up during Leinster's European trip to Castres last month, but the 2013 Test Lion aggravated the injury while running on Monday and was absent from training yesterday.

For Jackson, it's almost a case of a Test career coming full circle.

It was in the same Edinburgh surroundings four years ago, when preferred to Ronan O'Gara on what would ultimately be the Munster legend's final international appearance, that the now 25-year-old was handed his first ever cap.

Thrown in at the deep end by Declan Kidney during a troublesome campaign, things hardly went according to plan, the hosts winning 12-8 in a game Ireland should have had well in hand after the first half.

And while Jackson kept his place for the following two games, he hasn't started a Six Nations game since in an Ireland career that, until last June, was punctuated with long spells of frustration.

Even as recently as 12 months ago, after failing to get off the bench in the previous October's World Cup quarter-final exit to Argentina, the former Methody Schools' Cup winner expected to be the man backing up Sexton for the opening tussle with Wales only to find himself deemed surplus to requirements.

His return north to help the Ulster cause on the more modest stage of the PRO12 was the pre-cursor for a Championship where he wouldn't bank even a single minute of game-time.

Such setbacks, however, seem to have been the making of the player and, fortunately for the Saintfield native, one year has made all the difference.

By the time last summer's South Africa tour rolled around, and following Ian Madigan's switch to Bordeaux-Begles in the Top14, the tables had turned with Jackson's subsequent performances in green enough to assuage any doubts about his readiness for this weekend.

A central cog in the Ulster machine now for multiple seasons, he has guided Ireland to a first ever away victory over the Springboks and backed up that showing with the start when Australia were overcome in November.

As such, there is not the same panic once witnessed when Sexton succumbs to injury.

"It's a massive learning curve, but one we feel he's able for," said forwards coach Simon Easterby at the team's Carton House base yesterday.

"He's built leadership into his game that maybe a year or two ago he wouldn't have had.

"He has been in this system and this group for longer and it allows him to be much more confident. The lads around now look to him when he is speaking and that is the mark of someone who has everyone's ear and the mark of someone who can take the team forward and be that go-to which most teams want their ten to be.

"We have shown with the inclusion of Paddy, and then Joey Carbery in the autumn, if a player like Jonathan is unavailable we have more depth to push other guys through.

"That is your ultimate goal as a squad, that you build depth in every position.

"It's not always perfect but you want to try and make sure the gap between those guys who are dropping out and those guys who are coming in is much smaller and I think we are getting there."

Few nations can spark an out-half debate like Ireland - from Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward through to Sexton's own battle with O'Gara - and Easterby feels that, even without untimely injury, Jackson has been ramping up the pressure on the incumbent.

"Yeah, very difficult," he said of the decision between the pair moving forward.

"I think Paddy has his responsibility which is big in this team, a responsibility to run the game, to run the plays, to know roughly what field position we want to do certain things.

"He's a confidence player like a lot of No.10s, but when he's on his game he's really difficult to manage and he's a threat to the opposition both in the back field and the front line. He has great passing skills too.

"It's good that we've got those issues and then when we've a full deck to pick from, we've got three or four guys in that position who potentially could start - that's what you want."

Even with Jackson promoted to the starting line-up, and only two out-halves called into the original squad, Ireland will resist the temptation to call Madigan in as a reinforcement.

The Dubliner, who started for Bordeaux in their European win against Ulster two weeks ago, could not train with the squad last week as his club had a league game with Clermont and, when fears grew over Sexton's status, it was Munster's Ian Keatley who was drafted in.

"Unfortunately he (Madigan) couldn't be with us last week anyway so it compromises his position with us when he is not playing in Ireland and we are trying to support those guys who are staying here," Easterby said.

"Circumstances may allow us to look outside of that but as it happens at the moment we have got those guys in and Mads hasn't been selected in the squad.

"He couldn't be included last week so that hasn't really helped his cause."

And while one Ulsterman now looks certain to start, matters seem less promising for Andrew Trimble, who was unable to fully train yesterday.

The Ulster captain has a groin complaint and, while Schmidt has somewhat now relaxed his previous policy that a player must train on Tuesday to take part come the weekend, the Coleraine man's setback could see Munster's Keith Earls gain an advantage in the battle for a wing berth.

"He ran today and it was reasonably effective and reasonably high-intensity," Easterby revealed. "But it's a case of monitoring him and making sure he's fully fit and we're not risking a player who's not right."

Things are more definitive in the case of flanker Peter O'Mahony, who has been ruled out of the trip to Murrayfield after picking up a hamstring problem.

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