Welcome to Jackson Country

Last weeks news that iHumph is going to London Samoa came as a bit of a surprise – he has had an inconsistent season, but played a key role in Ulster’s Heineken Cup march. He was duff in Thomond, although it was his drop goal that ultimately won the game. Paddy Jackson’s selection for the semi-final was a glimpse of the new era, but we were fully expecting Jackson and iHumph to be sharing 10 duties for the next couple of seasons, before iHumph’s strolls into the sunset. But now that’s not going to be the case – Humphreys has decided to take up an apparently lucrative contract at Sunbury Apia Reading to finish off his career there.

There is a bit of a revolution going on at Irish – the rank and thuggish rugby supplied over the last few years is out, and a new approach is in. Head coach Toby Booth and forwards coach Neal Hatley have joined Gary Gold at Oooooooooooooooooooooohh Bath (which doesn’t exactly augur well for the return of the free-flowing rugby the English press think Bath serve up) and Mike Catt has joined Stuart Lancaster at Team England.

In come Brian Smith as director of rugger and, intriguingly, Shaun Edwards, inventor of defence, as attack coach. A fattie coach will be named soon, and suddenly Irish looks like a team going places. Felon Armitage has gone to join Steffon at Toulon, Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob has retired, and in will come Tomas O’Leary, iHumph, Shane Geraghty and bosher extraordinaire Setaimata Sa from league – an odd combo we admit.

We digress. Humphreys has had a good 4 years in his second stint at Ulster. He joined at the bottom, when Ulster were fending off Connacht for a HEC place, and leaves as a possible HEC champion – it’s always been acknowledged he has never been in the same class as his brother, but he did a good job, igniting a backline packed with potential with his silky skills and eye for a gap, and fitting in well inside Paddy Wallace. Astoundingly, he took a couple of years to shake off Niall O’Connor, but was pretty much first choice throughout his 4 years at Ravers.

When Ruan Pienaar arrived, it helped iHumph further – the dogs on the street could tell you about his defensive “issues”, and the presence of a superstar game-planner inside him tended to dissuade ravenous flankers and centres from blitzing him too much. Even with the arrival of Jackson at this level, you’d have expected Humphreys to stay and mentor the young lad through a couple of seasons before heading off, but it’s not to be. Humphreys is a genuine guy and has made the call to make the move – we wish him the best, and we’ll always have that kick against Biarritz, that try against Clermont, this beard, and his 2-0 HEC record in Thomond Park.

Now, back to Ulster, and the future. The Paddy Jackson era, which has been in genesis for 3 years, is suddenly upon us. Jackson is known as a distributor, but it was his defensive display against Leinster that got him the 10 shirt for Embra – he looked one of Ulster’s better players in the Leinster game. He didn’t do much in the Palindrome, but Pienaar was running the show, and it was Jackson’s job to get through the day without a major calamity and ensure that when he starts the final, it won’t be seen as a massive gamble.  It’s a great outcome for Jackson.  Johnny Sexton, despite his talent, had to wait until he was 24 to become the clear first choice for Leinster – Jackson looks set to be handed the role at 20.  It puts the likes of Ian Madigan in his sights.

Still, it’s a hell of a load on very young shoulders – Jackson is still young enough to be named in Ireland under-20 squad for next months World Championship in Seth Efrica [Aside: if anyone other than Deccie was running the seniors, he’d probably be going to New Zealand, at least for the experience]. He is nearly 3 years younger than the precocious Ronan O’Gara was when he made his Ireland debut in the 2000 Six Nations, although 6 months older than James O’Connor was when he debuted for the Wallabies – mind you, maybe that says more about the Australian sporting philosophy than anything.

It’s hard to see Ulster starting next season with a coterie of out-halves consisting of Jackson, half of Ruan Pienaar and James McKinney, who is less than a year older than Jackson and has just one Rabo start under his belt. If they do bring in someone to mentor Jackson and share game time, who is it likely to be? Hardly Niall O’Connor to return, as some have mooted, or Gareth Steenson from the Exeter bench – surely you’d be better off just investing in McKinney to take some of the workload.

With Jared Payne becoming a project player, Terblanche re-retiring and Wannenbosh heading somewhere sunny, Ulster might use their remaining foreigner card on an inexpensive senior out-half who can take some of the pressure off Jackson but not actually be good enough to steal his jersey for the big games – an Andy Goode with passing skills if you like.  Not quite Eddie Hakenui (too rubbish), not quite Paul Warwick (too good), someone more like Shaun Berne (just right).

Answers on a postcard please!