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Six Nations Ireland v Italy: A big chance to impress is within reach for Paddy Jackson

Schmidt must try new faces as Trimble backs his fellow Ulsterman

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

The curious case of Paddy Jackson's Six Nations could take another twist with inclusion against Italy this weekend, or more likely it will continue to simmer below the surface.

So far this campaign, the Ulster out-half has been sent home on Wednesdays not to return for the weekend, facing Dragons, Glasgow, Scarlets and Zebre this spring instead of Wales, France or England.

The IRFU would dispute the idea that this Saturday's game against Italy is a dead-rubber, but Joe Schmidt has used the word "transition" to describe the post-World Cup campaign that has seen his side slip to two defeats and a draw in their three Six Nations games.

There is a financial imperative to win, the difference between a third and fifth-placed finish is €1m, while the team could do with a morale boost.

Yet, with Scotland representing a step up in class next weekend and three Tests against South Africa, two games against New Zealand and a meeting with Australia to come later this year, the window for blooding new faces closes on Saturday.

For all that, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane have made positive impressions, but there appears to be a reluctance to tackle the lack of depth in three key positions; scrum-half, out-half and tighthead prop.

Tadhg Furlong remains out in the cold, while Kieran Marmion may finally get a chance to make his Six Nations debut off the bench against Italy if the head coach replaces Eoin Reddan this weekend.

At the World Cup, it was the lack of back-up behind Jonathan Sexton that was exposed badly when the heat came on against Argentina.

Ian Madigan wasn't personally blamed for the defeat, but both Schmidt and IRFU performance director David Nucifora pointed to his lack of opportunity at Leinster as a factor in him not being ready.

Madigan's selection was a call that went against Schmidt's previous decisions. Under the New Zealander, when Sexton has been fit he's played but the shake-up of the chasing pack has shifted.

Jackson got the nod when the then-Racing 92 man was rested for the head coach's first game in charge against Samoa, but the Ulsterman has only started one World Cup warm-up game in the 29 games since.

Jackson was a replacement for the subsequent Six Nations games before being dropped for Madigan for the final game. He was picked to tour Argentina, but got injured.

And when Sexton was stood down for 12 weeks as a result of suffering four head injuries in 2014 the head coach turned to Ian Keatley to lead the backline in the Six Nations opener against Italy in Rome.

When Sexton returned, Madigan kept the No.22 jersey and has held it ever since.

The hierarchy has been denied, but it looks as clear as can be. Before the World Cup, Jackson was considered first choice when Sexton wasn't available, with Madigan the preferred bench option; but when the push came in Cardiff when Sexton was ruled out against Argentina, Madigan got the nod.

Jackson has been tearing up trees for Ulster. There is plenty of debate as to whether Schmidt is backing the right horse as back-up.

Madigan's decision to leave for Bordeaux next season appears to open up an avenue for Jackson, but he will feel that he shouldn't have to wait; that his form demands selection.

Certainly, his Ulster colleagues believe that he is ready to take the next step.

Andrew Trimble said yesterday: "From a provincial point of view Paddy is probably our most important player. When he plays we generally play well, he's a guy who has just matured so much.

"When he came in at the start he was wet behind the ears and he's become a leader. He cracks the whip, he makes sure standards are maintained and you don't have to look further than Sexton to see someone who Jacky's on his way to becoming.

"What he's had to deal with, in being thrown in there a couple of times when things aren't going well and taking a hard time, he has shown massive maturity and resilience."

It remains to be seen if the head coach will be convinced.

But at full-time, the window shuts until the clash with Canada in November and if Sexton drops, Ireland will be where they were last October.

Belfast Telegraph


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