YESTERDAY’S EXCEPTIONALLY VAGUE injury update from Paris has muddied the waters and, for some, the great debate over who should wear number 10 for Ireland was reopened.
From our point of view, however, it is an open and shut case: Paddy Jackson is the next man in line to Jonathan Sexton, Paddy Jackson is the straightforward choice, Paddy Jackson is the best man for the job.
Even if we discount Racing Metro’s claim that Sexton needs somewhere in the region of 10 days and six weeks (a bizarrely wide time-frame) to recover from the ligament damage to his thumb and instead trust the IRFU’s medical team, it simply makes sense to hand Jackson the reins against Italy eight days from now.
On Tuesday, after Sexton played his seventh game in seven weeks, Schmidt said it was a possibility that another player could feature in his place when the Azzuri come to town. The Kiwi seemed confident that the thumb bruising would not keep him out of action, but more concerned that fatigue was taking its toll.
Next week is the perfect opportunity to take him out of the firing line; either altogether or simply to let him loose on a tiring defence in the final quarter to keep his match-sharpness up. The cliche that Italy are ever-improving and cannot be taken for granted has merit, but with Jackson at the helm Ireland can still put up a convincing winning scoreline.
There is a theory doing the rounds this week that goes something along the lines of ‘Schmidt doesn’t fancy Jackson, just doesn’t trust him’. The reason behind that view is that the Ulster out-half was not rushed from the bench when Sexton made his errors last Saturday.
Schmidt and Sexton is no ordinary coaching relationship. There was just a single score in the endgame at Twickenham and the head coach would have been loathe to haul his number 10 off; not because the replacement wasn’t up to scratch, but because the first-choice is the fulcrum for his core attacking gameplan. Moving away from that safety blanket is an extremely difficult move for a coach who has witnessed that same player bring so much success.
Put simply, the 22-year-old Jackson would not be in a match-day squad if he didn’t have Schmidt’s faith. Last summer,when Les Kiss was acting head coach with Schmidt officially just on a watching brief, things were different.
Ian Madigan was preferred after an impressive run of form in the latter stages of the Amlin Challenge Cup and Pro12. and Ulster’s out-half was allowed just 20 minutes off the bench after watching the backline make little or no inroads against Canada or the USA and as a result his sole tour highlight was a miming session with Simon Zebo.
Schmidt is all too aware that Sexton’s new Top14 workload has greatly increased the probability of injury. He would apparently prefer to have two backs who can play multiple positions on his bench, but he chooses Jackson, because if the former Leinster man is forced off the field early in a game, the babyfaced assassin is the player best equipped to act as playmaker for this team, to carry out the meticulously-laid plan.
And why wouldn’t he be? There are no complaints from Ulster, who the young out-half guided to last season’s Pro12 final and to a 100% record in the group stages of this season’s Heineken Cup. His consistency in goal-kicking has improved considerably this season too and the decision to give the tee back to Ruan Pienaar in January seemed a sensible way to finish the job Jackson had started.
This 22-year-old’s strength is his subtly. He resists the urge to contort his body so he can fizz and spin passes wide, or dropping a shoulder in the hope of fooling the odd club player. Jackson is a man born to play out-half, the choices he makes are invariably good ones, his game management and play-calling is innate, not something he is learning as he goes and he is proving more accurate with his boot every time he takes the field.
To those who don’t watch him regularly there is a natural distrust; perhaps it is because of his babyface or perhaps there are other reasons.
Many have simply pointed back 12 or 18 months to his his kicking woes. But the the more you see of Jackson, the more his quality can be appreciated and, whether the report from Racing is true or not, Joe Schmidt should tell you that much about his number 10 next week.