Ulster's Paddy Jackson is determined to make his mark
IT MIGHT be another battle with Ireland’s number one number 10, it might potentially be a final run against Ian Madigan in the blue of Leinster, but whatever Paddy Jackson faces this weekend, he is determined to make his mark.
The Ulster out-half would, of course, be justified in feeling he’d done enough for the province this season to merit some form of Six Nations involvement. But the tour of South Africa in the summer will offer Jackson more of an opportunity and, with Madigan off to Bordeaux in just over a month’s time, the door is ajar.
He can’t but concede that his improving international prospects are somewhere in his head as he prepares to lead Ulster into battle against Leinster on Saturday, but he insists he won't allow it to distract.
“Whether it’s Johnny or Mads, it’s always fun playing against them. It’s good to test ourselves. We’re obviously competing for a national spot, so I’m looking forward to it," Jackson said.
“You can try and block it out. It’s obviously going to be there in your mind. Whether it’s Johnny or Mads, we’re going up against each other but, at the end of the day, if I focus on that, it’s not going to have a positive effect on my game. I’ll just be trying to focus on what I’m doing here and my own game.”
Jackson spent the spring of the year in the Irish camp, but was sent home each weekend to play for Ulster; Madigan preferred to join the 23 because of his versatility.
The 24-year-old, who made his Ireland debut against Scotland in 2013, is philosophical about his exclusion: “Yeah, I would have loved to have been playing, but one of us wasn’t going to get picked. Unfortunately, it was me. There’ll be better days ahead, I’m sure,” he said.
And as he knows all too well, Sexton represents a big threat to him again on Saturday, this time to his hopes of playing in a Guinness PRO12 semi-final: “I know from playing against him and training, he takes the ball very well to the line. He can draw defenders in and, obviously, his tactical kicking is brilliant," he added.
“From a back-three perspective, we’ll have to be on the money there. He’s a player you have to make sure you don’t take your eye off because, if you do, he’ll take the space in front of him.”
Ulster realistically need to win their last two games to avoid being leapfrogged by Scarlets, who sit just a single point behind Les Kiss’ fourth-placed side: “Yeah, we have to win so, in that sense, it’s cup rugby. We’re not going to shy away from it, we’re all aware of the task at hand and we’re all on the same page for it," he said.
“Not having a game last week has meant we’ve had a good build-up to it. Obviously, we’d have preferred to be in Europe, but it’s given us that added drive towards this game. I think we’re in good shape for it.”
Despite a rocky start and a poor European campaign, Leinster come to the Kingspan top of the table and with a mean defensive record, having conceded just 22 tries in the PRO12 this season.
A Sean Cronin try was enough to separate the sides in their first meeting at the RDS back in November, but Jackson feels Ulster have improved since then: “We’ve got a lot of the guys back from World Cup. It’s been a while since we played them. We hit a really good patch during the European group stages, but we dipped a bit during the Six Nations," he said.
“We’re starting to find our feet again. I don’t think it’s been perfect the last few games, but we’re building nicely towards this one.”