RUARIDH JACKSON is set to make his 150th Glasgow Warriors appearance against Zebre at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi on Saturday evening, just over a decade after he burst onto the scene as a fresh-faced 20-year-old with a swashbuckling performance in his first start for the club against English giants Bath in the Heineken Cup, scoring one audacious interception try and then launching a length-of-the-field counter-attack in injury time as his team pushed hard for a shock win on the road.
Jackson did not quite make it over the line on that occasion, but he had made his mark. It felt like Scotland had finally found a figure who might be capable of filling the number ten jersey with something approaching the authority that John Rutherford, Craig Chalmers and Gregor Townsend had managed during previous generations.
The Aberdonian made his international debut off the bench against New Zealand in November 2010, and by the time the 2011 World Cup came around he had established himself as first choice stand-off, but he didn’t quite kick on from there and by the end of the 2013-14 campaign he had fallen behind his club-mate Duncan Weir in the Scotland pecking order, while it was becoming increasingly apparent that Finn Russell was on his way to becoming the playmaker we had all been waiting.
“When I left I had no real thoughts or ambition to come back, but I’m delighted I have,” says Jackson, who has been deployed primarily as a full-back since returning north. “The way the last year and a half has gone for me, I’m loving my rugby again and the cherry on top is getting to this landmark.
“It’s certainly given me a new lease of life. If I’d stayed down and slogged it out at Harlequins, or moved on elsewhere, who knows where I’d be, but I’m just looking forward and loving it here at the minute.”
Jackson has never made any bones about his role as the guy who wears the number 15 jersey when Stuart Hogg isn’t available, and it is a situation which has worked brilliantly for the club these last 18 months. He is a safe pair of hands, he has no delusions of grandeur, and he has the experience and personality to help guide emerging/fringe players at the club through those tricky international windows when the number of front-liners unavailable tends to be well into double-figures.
“There’s a lot of the young guys coming in and getting their first opportunities, and I’ve enjoyed trying to impart some sort of wisdom on them to help them through this period,” he says. “But I’m not putting it down to me, the fact that the squad as a whole have done well traditionally in these periods shows there’s a good culture here which helps create a seamless transition with no drop-off in performance. Sometimes it almost lifts the team, I think, because guys are trying to make their mark and put their best foot forward. It’s actually quite a nice environment to be in.
“All these guys are talented players and it’s just experiences within games when maybe things aren’t going well, when the opposition are on top, that I think I can help,” he adds. “I’ve been through a fair few of these moments myself and I can hopefully try to guide some of these guys through.”
With that in mind, Jackson detected a significant sign of progression in the teams performance against Cardiff Blues last weekend when compared to the experience against Munster four months ago at the start of the November Test window.
“It looked like we were coasting it [against Cardiff] and then there was pressure on and we thankfully managed to guide it out in that last minute smartly and coolly, whereas against Munster we probably shot ourselves in the foot because when we should have seen it out we lost it,” he explained, “So, it’s good to see guys have been making shifts even in three to four months.”
That bonus point win last Friday left Warriors just one point behind Munster in the PRO14 Conference A table, and Jackson hopes that they can put more pressure on the Irishmen this weekend when they head to Italy to take on the league’s bottom team. But he insists that his side will have to be on their toes to avoid an upset.
“The Italians are always tough to play over there,” he reasons. “They’re a passionate bunch whenever they play at home. They really up their game and [we’re going] with a young squad, including guys who’ll be having their first experiences over there. We were taught a lesson by Benetton earlier in the year and we’re not wanting to make that same mistake again.
“It’ll be nice to see what sorts of shifts we’ve made in those situations. We got beaten up a bit over there and Zebre are also a physical team who play a lot of rugby as well. They’re a dangerous team when they click, so that’s where our defence comes to the fore. If we can shut them down and force them to make mistakes we should be in a position to capitalise and come away with a good victory.”
It is not clear at this stage what plan head coach Dave Rennie has in mind for the No 15 role after Hogg moves on to Exeter Chiefs during the summer, but you would expect Jackson to be part of the equation. His current contract runs out at the end of the season, but having only just celebrated his 31st birthday, he surely has a few more miles left on the clock – and surely Warriors won’t want to turn their back on that sort of experience (and versatility) during a World Cup year.