LAST season, Glasgow were playing Connacht at Scotstoun and Ruaridh Jackson made an appearance off the bench just before the one-hour mark.
A few minutes after entering the fray the stand-off did something that typifies the man.
Halfway through a pass on the halfway line Jackson had a change of heart and the ball left his hands in slow motion. In desperation he somehow managed to snatch his own pass out of thin air, drawing two defenders on to him in the process, before smuggling the ball to Sean Lamont who sent DTH van der Merwe over the try line 50 yards upfield.
It was just one of many “Jacko” moments that are part and parcel of the player but, while that one saw a successful outcome, the same can’t be said for every rush of blood to the stand-off’s head. No one doubted the man’s talent but his inconsistency and error count meant that Jackson rarely enjoyed a run of games for Glasgow, never mind Scotland.
One week after his breakthrough game against Bath in the Heinken Cup back in 2009, he was replaced by Dan Parks for the rematch. On the international stage, former coach Andy Robinson started his reign with Phil Godman at stand-off, ended with a specialist scrum-half in Greig Laidlaw at No.10 and eventually dropped Jackson from the Scotland squad that toured Australia, Fiji and Samoa in the summer of 2012. In November of last year, a few weeks after coming off the bench against the All Blacks and Springboks at Murrayfield, Jackson played against against Quins – Carmathen Quins that is – for Dundee HSFP in the British and Irish Cup. In last season’s RaboDirect semi-final against Leinster, arguably the biggest match in Glasgow’s professional history, head coach Gregor Townsend replaced Jackson with Peter Horne, a centre by trade. Jackson has been replaced by just about everyone with the exception of a crash test dummy.
A new season has brought about a new man, the 25-year-old is undergoing his very own renaissance and playing the best rugby of his career. The mistakes have gone, at least the unforced howlers have, to be replaced by the calm confidence of the man who knows he’s operating at the top of his game. The defence can still be a little shaky, as Toulon will testify, but the Glasgow ten is favourite to line up against Japan when Scotland begin their autumn Test campaign at Murrayfield on Saturday.
The shaggy beard he sported, until it was recently replaced by a d’Artagnan moustache for “Movember”, seemed to be an outward manifestation of an inner psychological maturity. Is that the real change?
“I wouldn’t say there is anything that I could put my finger on,” says Jackson. “I’ve just got my confidence back this year. I’ve had a good stint at it and in the past I’ve hadn’t played as many back-to-back full 80 minute matches and that has really given me the confidence and I just try and use that week in and week out.
“I am also concentrating at training and making sure that I am solid there as well and not throwing silly passes and doing stupid things in training so I maintain that level throughout, and it seems to be transferring on to the pitch.
“There will be a correlation to what I do in training and taking that on to the pitch. I have just taken a more serious approach to that and become more focused throughout the training sessions and that should become more natural on the pitch. You find more comfortable positions and you’re not putting yourself under pressure out there and that has definitely been the case this year.”
It must have been hard for Townsend to drop his favourite stand-off last season because the Glasgow coach has long been Jackson’s champion, fighting his corner while a Scotland assistant and it’s not hard to imagine why. There are obvious playing parallels between the pair, highly skilled but prone to making the occasional hare-brained decision. It may be cod psychology rather than anything more scientific but it’s not hard to see Townsend’s efforts being aimed at preventing Jackson from repeating the same mistakes he once made. The veteran knows all too well what it is like to be dropped, having suffered the fate when replaced by Chris Paterson in the quarter-finals of the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
Whatever the truth, the pair of them, master and pupil, have worked closely together for many years and it appears to be paying some dividends.
“He’s [Townsend] very good,” says Jackson of his mentor. “We go through games every week. He has points for me and I have lots of questions to ask him. It’s great to sit down with someone like him who’s been through it all and played the best of the best. Maybe he was pragmatic at times, he did some crazy things and he also showed moments of brilliance. If I could be compared to some of his attacking skills, I’d take that. I’m just learning as much from him as possible, and yeah, he’s been brilliant.
“It’s not necessarily a case of ‘when we’re here we’ll do this’. He is very good at getting us to play heads-up rugby, play to the spaces, even if we are in our backfield, if there is space, he wants us to attack it, even if we’ve been under pressure in our own half. That is one of the really good aspects. He was working with me long before he got the Glasgow job. I always communicated with him whether it was by email or we met up and went through stuff and he’d try and help me, he’s always been there for me and put in a lot of hours.”
Jackson has repaid the time, energy and effort by producing the most consistent rugby of his career and the fact that his main rival Duncan Weir has been injured has to be relevant. His absence has offered Jackson a unrivalled run of matches and stand-offs need to play regularly to nurture good habits. The fact that Jackson was ever-present in the Warriors XV, at least until last weekend’s loss to Munster, can only have helped his cause and his consistency.
“They are doing this rotation thing, player welfare and taking care of players so fair enough,” he argues, “but your mindset as a player when you are training so hard and working and full of confidence is that you want to be out there and getting those 80 minutes under your belt.”
Jackson should get another 80 minutes against Japan. The stand-off has been replaced once again, but this time by the new, improved model of himself.