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Friday 18 August 2017

In Jacko we must trust for Murrayfield battle

Ireland captain Best backs the No 10 to lead in green

Irish head coach Joe Schmidt at Murrayfield yesterday.
Irish head coach Joe Schmidt at Murrayfield yesterday.

Paddy Jackson must be sick of the sight of and sounds about a certain Jonathan Sexton.

The Ulsterman has grown into a leader in his province in his own right; stalled as a cameo merchant for his country.

Well, that is the impression of the young buck who has never truly managed to come out from under the shadow cast by Sexton.

This is actually not the case.

Jackson has taken the reins for Ireland for 22 more minutes than Sexton, 447 against 425, in the last year from six caps, one less than the tortured Leinster man.

"He's played the majority of the Tests in the last 12 months, so he's ready to perform," said Rory Best after the Captain's Run at Murrayfield yesterday.

Journey

Ireland's primary leader has been up close and personal for Jackson's personal journey. It all began when he was thrown into the 2012 European Cup final as a wet-behind-the-ears rookie.

It didn't go too well for the former Methodist College prodigy.

Then again, it wasn't exactly a bed of roses for anyone in white at Twickenham that day.

You can't force leadership. It comes along the way. Some generate it quicker than others.

Irish team-mates Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson and Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile
Irish team-mates Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson and Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile

What Jackson has never lacked is character and the commitment to make the best of what he has.

He has left the comfort of playing second-fiddle to Springbok Ruan Pienaar for his province.

"I think the growth of Jacko' since before the World Cup has been fairly evident.

"Up at Ulster we would be in a lot worse position if he wasn't there.

"He's learned a lot I think from working so closely with Johnny.

"It's a long period from the middle of June right through to October.

"He learned a lot there, he matured a lot.

"He had to focus when he wasn't getting a start, but he's shown well in a couple of big performances and he's been in the out-half slot for those."

The calf strain that has sidelined Sexton has been met with lingering wishes that it wasn't so.

Even at the Ireland press conference for the team announcement on Thursday, there was more interest in the man that wasn't going to play than the man who was.

In fact, Jackson might even welcome the obsessive study on the whereabouts and the 'how about' the injury plagued Leinster man.

There is the distinct impression the Belfast lad likes to work away in the background.

The fact Sexton was minding his calf meant Jackson has been running the Irish team in training for the last two weeks anyway.

"He's been great, he's a leader now," came the succinct words of scrum coach Greg Feek.

"He's been amongst us for a good while. He's taken it all on board.

"He knows his detail well and he's a smart kid.

"There's a lot of trust in what he does, from the coaches but also the rest of the team as well."

The swap of Conor Murray for Pienaar does not exactly take a leap of the imagination.

The scrum-halfs are quite similar in size and style as good passing, great kicking half-backs.

In historical terms, Scotland lead in their 131 head-to-head contests with Ireland, a rivalry that stretches back as far as 1877.

Ireland have closed the gap to 61 wins against 65 for the Scots with five drawn internationals in 1893, 1896, 1900, 1979 and 1994.

From the turn of the century, the Irish have been the dominant force winning 14 and losing three, including going eight unbeaten in the last four.

They will have to be tuned in and turned on when it comes to besting the finest Scottish side this century.

Scotland: S Hogg; S Maitland, H Jones, A Dunbar, T Seymour; F Russell, G Laidlaw (capt); A Dell, F Brown, Z Fagerson, R Gray, J Gray, R Wilson, H Watson, J Strauss.

Ireland: R Kearney; S Zebo, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, K Earls; P Jackson, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), T Furlong, I Henderson, D Toner, CJ Stander, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

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