It’s not often Leinster lose at home, but last weekend Wasps pitched camp at the RDS and had much the same effect on the old ground as the Vandals did on ancient Rome. The 33-6, three tries to nil result was Leinster’s worst ever shellacking in European competition, a new record, and if it carries on in this vein Leo Cullen will break another, the shortest serving coach in the club’s history.
Wasps enjoyed the bounce of the ball, literally speaking, because the first try was the direct result of a rugby ball’s ability to make fool of anyone including Dave Kearney, but no-one could argue with the final result, even if the home side lost some key figures along the way. Leinster last won this tournament in 2012 but it could have been 1812 for all the impression they made.
If a casual observer was asked they would have fingered the Wasps’ stand-off as the Lions’ Test ten on display rather than Leinster’s Johnny Sexton, who looked badly out of sorts. Ruaridh Jackson owes his place in Wasps’ starting XV to Jimmy Gopperth’s ill discipline – the Kiwi was banned for three matches for a late tackle on the Tigers’ Mathew Tait – but now he has his foot in the door, the Scot is determined to keep pushing.
So far he has helped Wasps to a 23-3 win over Gloucester at home and helped steer his club to that impressive victory at the RDS. Having missed almost the whole of last season with an anterior cruciate ligament injury in only his second appearance in club colours perhaps Jackson is due a little luck.
“With a one-year contract, the injury [last season] could not have come at a worse time,” he says of that ligament tear against Northampton. “The fact that Wasps offered me something, I have a two-year deal that keeps me here this season and next, was very reassuring.
“Jimmy has had a bad time with suspensions. It’s a shame for him but I am looking forward to taking these opportunities. If we keep winning and keep doing well hopefully it will be enough to keep him in check but you never know.
“They could change things up and put him back in but I feel that I am doing pretty well and I just need to keep that level of performance up and if the team keep winning it is always hard to change a winning team. That is what I am focusing on, keep helping the team as much as possible, but having said that it will be a tough one this weekend against Toulon.”
He isn’t looking for an argument. Wasps host Europe’s leading club at home today, even if “home” for them is Coventry, a two-hour drive up the M40 from their London base where Wasps still train, something Jackson concedes is a “little odd”, before adding that the club are looking for local training facilities with an eye to a permanent move.
Meanwhile, the French giants are looking for an unprecedented fourth European title on the bounce having already established themselves as the team to beat. Jackson was involved with Glasgow two years back when all the Warriors’ meticulous research was thrown out the window within the opening minutes when Toulon threw the ball about like an end-of-season sevens jamboree and ripped Glasgow to pieces in the process. Little wonder the stand-off cautions against any attempt to second guess what the holders might have in store today.
“They have so many individuals who can do things off the cuff,” Jackson replies when quizzed. “Toulon may look slightly disorganised but someone can do something, run around someone or run through someone and make an offload. Our defence against Leinster was good but it needs to go up another level so we can shut down these threats and stop them making these brilliant plays that give them the momentum. That will be key to stopping them I think.”
If defence is not Jackson’s forte, due to a shortage of muscle rather than desire, he remains a potent attacking threat even if his ambitious play occasionally writes cheques that his talent struggles to cash. The stand-off is still only 27 but he has been around the block often enough to know which way is up and this added maturity is now evident in his play. The mistakes that riddled his game, overshadowing all the good things he was doing, taking the ball to the line and putting runners in space, seem to be behind him following his move to England even if two matches is scant evidence to go on.
Like his club, the stand-off’s star is quietly rising as is his confidence after that two-year deal from Wasps and the two starts he has under his belt. He is helped by the fact that he has some bullets to fire out wide in the form of Christian Wade, Charles Piutau and Frank “The Tank” Halai, the latter pair one-time team-mates at the Auckland Blues and both former All Blacks. Puitau missed out on the recent World Cup only because he had signalled his intention to move to Europe. Wasps have him for just one year, he has already signed for Ulster, so they want to utilise his immense talents while they can.
“That is pretty much my job,” says Jackson, “just to get them [the back three] in a bit of space. A lot of time they will finish it off so its pretty comforting knowing that you have those sort of weapons out wide. We have a good pack and in the last couple of weeks they have given us some good pretty ball so if the forwards can keep supplying that and I can keep supplying the backs then we should be all right because we are pretty dangerous.”
Wasps find themselves in this year’s Pool of Death – ERCC are obliged to have one per season, it’s somewhere in the small print – along with Leinster, Toulon and Bath, every one of them a previous/current champion.
On 19 December, almost exactly seven years on from the day it all started for Jackson, the Scot will return to Bath’s famous old Recreation Ground where he first hit the headlines as a 20-year-old after giving a near flawless, bravura display of attacking rugby for Glasgow. What advice would the older and wiser Jackson offer to his young self, seven years on?
“I think probably my advice would be just play to your strengths,” he replies after taking a moment to mull things over. “The couple of years where I want off the map and didn’t kick on as much as I would have liked I think I was trying to play the way other people wanted me to.
“I have always had a natural will to attack and take the ball to the line but I probably went away from that and focused on the things everyone thought I needed to improve. You do need to improve those things but never take away what got you into that position in the first place.”
Jackson’s current renaissance is largely down to taking one man’s advice... his own.