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Paddy Jackson's class comes to surface leaving Ireland boss Joe Schmidt confident Ulster ace will deliver

By Jonathan Bradley

If Ireland came into their series against South Africa with plenty of questions, Saturday's famous win provided some answers with the performances of Ulstermen chief among them.

For the entirety of Joe Schmidt's Ireland tenure, out-half Johnny Sexton has been viewed as the key, irreplaceable figure, the coach's on-field implementer of the game plan.

When the 30-year-old was forced out of the World Cup quarter-final with Argentina, for many, the team's hopes went with him.

The Leinsterman endured a bruising first season back in Dublin and a shoulder injury picked up in the Pro12 final means he is missing for this tour but, in his absence, Paddy Jackson was superb at Newlands.

Playing close to the gainline, the 24-year-old was inventive in attack, composed in his game management, and accurate off the tee providing 16 points with the boot.

When he did make a mistake - throwing the intercept that allowed Pieter Steph du Toit in for a simple try - he showed the mental resilience to bounce back.

Given the chance to make amends shortly after, he nailed the penalty that meant the Springboks would have needed a converted try in the closing stages to deny Ireland their piece of history. And when they went chasing that score, it was Jackson who was front and centre to deny them.

As JP Pietersen made for the corner with the clock in the red, there were shades of Ryan Crotty against the All Blacks three years ago but, after Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw arrived on the scene to hold him up, it was Jackson who finished the job and bundled the winger into touch to bring the final whistle.

It was just one moment but as recently as last week Ulster and Ireland team-mate Craig Gilroy highlighted Jackson's determination in defence and Saturday was another wholly committed showing.

All this from a man who has had a mixed time with Ireland since an inauspicious debut when thrown in at the deep end against Scotland in 2013 and must have felt unwanted after seeing limited action in the World Cup and being passed over for the Six Nations.

Even when Sexton does return, Ireland surely feel a whole lot better about both their depth and succession plan for the ten jersey.

And it was not only Jackson who thrived in the pressure of Cape Town. Luke Marshall was making his first Ireland appearance since the summer tour to Argentina in 2014 as reward for what has been a restorative season for the centre. Speaking after the victory, Marshall admitted that 12 months ago he couldn't have imagined he'd be spending this summer in South Africa and was even concerned for his future at Ulster. Now, he has become an integral part of Les Kiss' midfield and carried that form and confidence into a green jersey.

Playing at inside centre - his original position but one he has filled infrequently for Ulster this year - his understanding with Jackson was evident while some clever work with the boot and at first receiver displayed all the traits of a schoolboy out-half.

Indeed, his clever grubber through for Payne's try was a moment the very best tens would have appreciated. Payne himself was another who was exceptional. While his quality has never been in question, many have wondered where he is best utilised. Having arrived at Ulster as a full-back, and largely returned there this season, Saturday represented his first Ireland appearance in the 15 jersey having won all his prior caps as an outside centre.

With Rob Kearney absent he is likely to remain there for the duration of the tour and his full array of attacking instincts were on display Saturday. His try aside, a string of clever offloads and smart running lines saw him influence Ireland's game with ball in hand more than ever before.

And what of Rory Best?

Filling the sizeable shoes of Paul O'Connell was never going to be an easy task and, from a team perspective, his first Six Nations as captain was a forgettable one. Against South Africa, along with a few key turnovers, his interactions with the referee seemed more frequent and no matter what happens from here his tenure as skipper has a signature victory.

The history-making was not confined to Cape Town either and Ulstermen will be proud of their role in the under-20s win over New Zealand.

Jacob Stockdale, after a season when he cracked the first-team at Kingspan Stadium, was prominent while hooker Adam McBurney made amends for his yellow card with a try.

Fellow Ulster Academy man Johnny McPhillips also landed some key kicks after Bill Johnston was lost to injury.

• CJ Stander will miss Ireland's second Test against South Africa after he was handed a one-game ban for the red card he was shown in Saturday's first Test.

Disciplinary officer Terry Willis chose to suspend the Munster flanker after a two-day hearing, reducing his two-week ban to one on account of his prior record.

Stander was dismissed following a collision with Springbok out-half Pat Lambie, who had to leave the field with concussion.

Belfast Telegraph


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