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Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan duel is crucial: Ulster's Iain Henderson


Shoulder to shoulder: Henderson believes Jackson must get the better of Irish rival Ian Madigan

Shoulder to shoulder: Henderson believes Jackson must get the better of Irish rival Ian Madigan

©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Shoulder to shoulder: Henderson believes Jackson must get the better of Irish rival Ian Madigan

With Ireland duty having given Iain Henderson a front-row seat for the rivalry between his provincial team-mate Paddy Jackson and Bordeaux's Ian Madigan, the star flanker is looking forward to the latest instalment when Ulster's Champions Cup campaign begins in France on Sunday.

The duo have had a back-and-forth tussle for international caps since 2013 and Jackson got the nod on the South African tour back in June after a frustrating time during the World Cup and last Six Nations.

With Jackson excelling against the Springboks, and Madigan initially having been left out of the travelling party following his switch to the Top14, Ulster's No. 10 has edged ahead in the race to pressure Johnny Sexton for the national jersey, and the Pool 5 opener is set to offer a chance for a final head-to-head before the November Internationals.

More pressingly, it's a battle that Henderson believes is crucial to his side's hope of notching an opening win in Europe for the first time since 2013.

"It's going to be interesting because Jacko is going so well," said Henderson, who returned from an elbow infection in the loss to Connacht last weekend. "Mads is one of the most competitive people I know and I'm sure he'll be going out there to show that he's better than Paddy.

"And, don't get me wrong, Jacko will be looking to show that he's better than Mads. It just makes for a very interesting battle, I think."

Director of Rugby Les Kiss, who coached Madigan in his days as an Ireland assistant, and selected the Dubliner as his starting fly-half on both occasions he picked the national side between the reigns of Declan Kidney and Joe Schmidt in 2013, is also hoping Jackson maintains his recent edge.

"There are plenty of subplots, for sure," he said.

"There's been a massive advancement from Paddy and, if you've looked at a lot of Bordeaux games, Mads is playing some lovely stuff too.

"There's some similarities in their game, they can take the ball to the line, they can play with width. I think it's going to be a compelling challenge in that area for sure.

"Mads is kicking goals from everywhere, he's pretty dead-eyed at the moment. It could come down to a kick here or there and it's going to be a massive challenge for us."

After making his first European appearance in the 2012/13 campaign, a year when Ulster won five of six in the pool, Henderson insists there is no reason why the province cannot secure safe passage back to the knock-out stages following a two-year absence.

Their efforts a year ago were undone by defeats home and away to eventual champions Saracens, but Henderson says talent is not the issue when the Kingspan outfit take on the heavy hitters of the Aviva Premiership and Top14.

"We played Saracens, and there's times when you look back at those defeats and you see how stupid we've been, how we haven't been calculating enough.

"You're kicking yourself because it's not the Ulster that you see week in week out. There's always a huge buzz when it comes to playing in Europe and maybe that makes people almost nervous come the games.

"We have to look at it like another rugby game. When it comes down to it, international players make up the guts of our team. International players make up the guts of the teams we're playing too.

"Ireland can do it against France or England in the Six Nations, so there's no reason we, with a team of Irish internationals, can't beat a team like Saracens who are a team of England internationals."

Belfast Telegraph