Jacob Stockdale can still be Ireland's match-winner, but in a new role
"By the time Warren Gatland is making his selection, I want to be in a position where it’s a no-brainer that he has to have me."
A month before rugby returned, Jacob Stockdale had looked back on all his Ulster and Ireland games, and even a few U20 matches, and was itching to get back to it.
Having been a star performer for Ireland U20s and impressed at Ulster, Stockdale made his Test debut in the summer of 2017. He scored in that game and added three more in November 2017 wins over South Africa and Argentina. 2017 was excellent but 2018 eclipsed it, and then some.
At the age of 21, he scored seven tries as Ireland won the Six Nations Grand Slam. For Ulster and Ireland combined, he scored 20 tries in the 2017/18 season. Later that year, after helping Ireland to a series win in Australia, he scored a stunning matchwinner against the All Blacks in Dublin.
2019 was more of a land for Stockdale as Test sides cottoned on to his obvious talents and tried to starve him of ball and open space to canter into. Ireland were off the boil all the way through 2019 as performance anxiety them in the Guinness Six Nations and World Cup. Stockdale himself admits that he loves to pore back through footage of himself in an effort to improve, but both he and Ireland seemed to lose that freedom and guts that had defined their run from March 2017 to December 2018.
Yet still, during the lockdown, Stockdale was unabashed when he spoke of his dreams of making the 2021 British & Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa. While many plays can, and very often do, swot away such questions and talk about focusing on the next game, Stockdale always embraces the challenge.
He his not shy about sharing his ambitions. He was not arrogant about it, but he did not shy away from Lions talk when he told House of Rugby:
"If the team was being picked now, I don’t know if I would be picked or not. But, by the time Warren Gatland is making his selection, I want to be in a position where it’s a no-brainer that he has to have me. That can be done in a matter of eight months, so that’s the plan anyway."
In many ways, he would remind you of Stephen Ferris, another Ulster player that roared out of the blocks for province and country. Ferris would often talk the talk before big games, but have the belief that he would back up those words on the pitch.
So it was with Stockdale, last Wednesday after he was named fullback to play France. He had made a few defensive errors in the win over Italy but had looked more like his old self in attack. Looking ahead to the challenge of playing France, he said:
"I don't know whether fear factor is the correct term. We definitely respect them and we respect the ability in which they can play. But, at the same time, we've had a number of good performances against France over the last few years, and we've got a good bit of return out of them. So we are quite confident when it comes to playing them, as a team."
Flash forward to Saturday night in Paris and Stockdale dashed over for his 17th Test try in 30 games. He tossed the ball back to Ross Byrne then looked into the night sky and let a curse out. It was a consolation try in a performance Ireland would like to soon forget.
As for Stockdale, it was another poor game in the green jersey. Johnny Sexton described the ball being like a bar of soap, in the slick Parisian conditions, and Stockdale struggled with it in defence. France did not as much test him with high balls as they did with kicks that forced him to scramble back and make quick decisions with.
He had been fortunate that one fumble from a French kick was not deemed a knock-on, but that may have planted a seed when, on 29 minutes, Vincent Rattez kicked through. Stockdale shelled the ball and tried to re-gather a second time rather than just dropping his body on the ball. It cost his team dearly as the loose ball was hacked on.
— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) October 31, 2020
Caelan Doris saw Francois Cros presented with a clear try-scoring opportunity and made the split-second call to tackle him off the ball. A penalty try and a yellow card for Doris. Back in the Virgin Media studios, in Dublin, sat Rob Kearney, who for so many years would have snuffed out danger like that. Stockdale had only managed to feed the flames.
He tried to get it going in attack, after the break, and did finish with 118 metres gained off 16 carries, but he was not flawless and gave possession back to the French by twice conceding turnovers (penalty and knock-on). He kept going until the very end, in fairness to him, and was rewarded with a try but it may not be enough to save his place in the starting XV.
Going into the game, it was commonly accepted that Stockdale in attack is immensely better than Stockdale the defender but, with Jordan Larmour out injured, Andy Farrell placed his faith in the Ulsterman. Hugo Keenan has been playing well for Leinster at fullback but he was given his first two starts in professional rugby on the left wing (where Stockdale has been at his best for Ireland). It is a call Farrell will have to stew over for a few days, but not too long as the Autumn Nations Cup is almost upon us.
James Lowe is now Irish-qualified and Keith Earls is back in full training with Ireland. After a solid start to international life, Hugo Keenan looks the most assured of keeping his place in the back three for the Wales game on November 12.
Andrew Conway could yet drop back and wear the 15 jersey or Keenan could get the nod, but it would be surprising, given where we are at, to see Stockdale starting against Wales in 13 days' time.
A bench role, for a game or two, would not be the worst thing in the world for Stockdale. He is someone more than capable in that 'finisher' role and could do lots of damage to teams - in the back three or at outside centre - coming into games when play is a bit less structured.
It may not be the way he saw his return to Test rugby, but it may have to do.
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Season 3 has returned with Ian Madigan & Eimear Considine as hosts. You can catch up on all our episodes from past seasons and interviews with Conrad Smith, Victor Matfield, Simon Zebo, Sean O'Brien, Jacob Stockdale, Drew Mitchell, Jean De Villiers, Finn Russell, Mike Brown, Brian O'Driscoll, Tana Umaga and much, much more.