IT HAS BEEN a tumultuous summer at Ulster, with senior staff following hot on the heels of senior players (and the old stadium name) out the door.
In Paddy Jackson though, the northern province have a constant they can build around and move forward with.
The June exit of head coach Mark Anscombe was acrimonious to say the least, with talk of player power forcing the Kiwi to clear his desk.
Though Jackson is beginning to come to terms with his role as a senior figure in the new ‘Kingspan Stadium’ dressing room, his back injury at the tail end of last season evidently kept him out of the loop.
“I was away for a lot of the summer so I hadn’t really heard much,” Jackson said at an Adidas Predator event yesterday.
“I didn’t really see it coming. Obviously with David [Humphreys] leaving as well I think it was from a bit higher up that a few changes needed to be made. That’s all that was really left with us. It was a shock and I was sad to see him go, but sure it’ll be alright.”
The 22-year-old added: “I got on very well with him. I found he’s very easy for me personally to chat to, I could have gone to him just one-on-one or anything, if I had anything on my mind. He helped me a lot.
“There’s a few times things weren’t going too well for me; he saw that, he sat down with me and we just talked over it and he said he wanted me to try and enjoy my game.
“I think a few times he thought I was over-thinking things or getting a bit caught up. It was good to have someone to talk to and get a few things off your chest. I’m very grateful for that, him being there to help me through those times.”
Those days are done now and as he begins to speak in the present tense tense, Jackson is still feeling the effects of the back injury that prevented him from joining Ireland’s summer tour of Argentina. The out-half describes in hindsight feeling the niggling problem during the Six Nations. But after 52 minutes of the Pro12 semi-final against Leinster – as Jackson struck Ulster’s third penalty to make the score 9 – 0 – one of his lower vertebrae (“L3 or L4″) gave way.
“I Kicked the ball and then I think it just finally gave in and just cracked,” Jackson explains.
“After that I tried to play on. I couldn’t really run. I tried to hit a ruck and it just wasn’t working at all.
“I think it was maybe because I was loading my kicking sessions quite a lot coming in to the end of the season, obviously coming in to the knock-out stages wanting to get that extra practice in. Perhaps that was a bit of an extra load that didn’t really help. I think it was just a matter of it being a long season, playing a lot of games, it was just unfortunate it happened in a semi-final.”
“So, yeah it was a bit frustrating, you know. Having gone the whole season and then just at the last hurdle there it giving in was very frustrating for me. But I’m hoping I can get back soon and I’m looking forward to playing again.”
Jackson hopes to pull on the number 10 jersey again inside the next month – if not in time for Zebre’s trip to Belfast in round two then for Cardiff Blues away on September 20.
He has been taking a limited part in training up to this point, but Monday’s scan and Tuesday’s visit to a specialist gave positive reports, leaving just one important box unchecked before he can complete his recovery.
“At the start it was still at me a bit, but the last month or so I’ve been feeling good, back running patterns with the team and stuff. Just need to get back doing contact and I should be good to go.”
So he’s been active enough to gauge the impact of interim coach Les Kiss – not that the Australian was much of a stranger back when Ravenhill was still called Ravenhill.
“It’s been great, he’s a lot of experience from working with Joe. He’s brought a lot of that back to Ulster and from our point of view training has been brilliant.
“From the outside point of view a lot of people were a bit worried about David and Mark leaving and a lot of the senior players going, but from an internal point of view training’s been class. It’s a really good positive attitude coming through from pre-season.”
Ulster supporters could certainly do with a little positivity to cling to when so much remains up in the air.