The Irish Independent reported this morning (2 June 2016) that the talismanic Johnny Sexton will miss the upcoming three Test tour to South Africa. Although the news has yet to be officially broken, the story is expected to be confirmed at a press conference this afternoon. I heard a whisper regarding this from a reliable source yesterday, and the story duly broke this morning . Once the news is officially confirmed, attention will turn to the man who will deputise Ireland’s fly-half.
The chief beneficiary of Sexton’s misfortune seems to be Ulster’s Paddy Jackson. Although Ian Madigan has been Joe Schmidt’s nominal replacement fly-half for the majority of the New Zealander’s tenure, the Leinster star’s imminent move to Bordeaux-Begles has apparently seen the utility back move down the Irish pecking order. Allied to that, Jackson has been in fantastic form for his native Ulster throughout the season, and is thoroughly deserving of this belated opportunity. The former Methody pupil is held in the highest regard by his Ulster colleagues, but has struggled to translate provincial form into international recognition. While Jackson’s talent has never been in doubt, some observers have questioned the ability of the Ulsterman to boss a game at the highest level.
However, Jackson’s performances this season have witnessed the fly-half come of age as a Test standard number ten, and seen him mature into a consummate professional, one that can be trusted in any scenario. Jackson has emerged as a leader and totem this season, much to delight of the Ravenhill faithful. As the Irish Independent has reported, Madigan is expected to be called up as a direct replacement for Sexton, and there is no doubt that the mercurial Dubliner will remain influential if called upon. His Ulster rival has earned this opportunity, though, and there is every chance that Jackson’s patience is going to be rewarded by his national coach.
And the Ulsterman will need to muster every inch of his resilience and self-belief for the monumental challenge that lies ahead. South Africa is an unforgiving environment for any Test player, and the fact the Irish have yet to taste victory on South African soil speaks volumes for the magnitude of the task at hand. Schmidt will be encouraged by Jackson’s form, though, and the manner in which the young fly-half has impressed in a difficult Ulster season. Strength is often found in adversity, however, and a massive opportunity now awaits the likeable and popular Jackson. While it’s sad to lose Sexton, the form and temperament shown by his understudy underscores the belief that the Ulster fly-half is well-equipped to handle one of the biggest challenges in sport. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. It will be fascinating to see if Paddy Jackson can finally deliver the goods when his country needs him most. Irish fans will wish him well. Opportunity indeed beckons for the modest Ulsterman.