Jacob Stockdale ready to silence the doubters, including himself
"I know he'll be ready for the weekend."
Of all the selection calls ahead of Ireland's 2020 Guinness Six Nations game against Italy, Jacob Stockdale and Hugo Keenan getting jerseys 15 and 11 sparked the biggest interest.
Peter O'Mahony is benched. So is Robbie Henshaw. Josh van der Flier is M.I.A. Will Connors is in for his Test debut. We have Jamison Gibson-Park and Ed Byrne ready to make debuts too.
Still, Jacob Stockdale, his form, his positional switch and his capabilities to rediscover the form of his first 18 months with Ireland were all discussed. Many are now doubting a guy that detonated onto the Test stage in 2017 and wound up 2018 by stunning the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road.
Stockdale is a guy who takes a lot on his shoulders. Sure, he might have restored an old Mustang during the first lockdown, but he is heavily invested in his rugby. Too invested, at times. He pored over footage of his old Ulster and Ireland games, during the break, in an effort to unlock what it was that made him such an irresistible talent in the first place.
2019 was a rough year for the Lisburn native, and he went try-less at the World Cup at the start of this Six Nations. He was not the only one that was humbled [again] by England, at Twickenham, but that did his battered confidence no favours.
Ulster have given him a run at fullback, after a few games there last season, and there are signs of the old Stockdale beneath the surface. He was poor in the Champions Cup exit against Toulouse, though, and he has benefitted from the unfortunate injury that befell Jordan Larmour [dislocated shoulder] earlier this month.
The commentary on Stockdale, from columns written, Shane Jennings taking him to task on Virgin Media and a slew of opinions on social media [some personal jibes and character attacks brusquely mixed in there] must be hard to take. As much as he tries to shut it out, some of the harsh words always get through. It's a lot to take on.
As much as doubts exist in the wider sphere, and Stockdale has battled his own in the past 20 months, Andy Farrell and his coaching staff are pushing their chips behind him. With an eye on James Lowe becoming Irish-qualified, and getting a run on the left wing, Stockdale is to get a run of games at fullback.
"We've had quite a few sessions under our belt now so we have looked at different combinations and we've been very impressed with Jacob," says Farrell.
"He is learning the trade pretty quickly in the back field. He is learning to adapt and get stronger there. We think he has all the attributes to push forward in that position and there will be elements of his game we need to keep pushing forward.
"What you don't see on the wing with Jacob from time to time is his skill level. He has got great vision, he is able to see things and he has great hands as well. He hits a brilliant line and you don't always get to do that from the wing. Hopefully we can get him involved as much as we can."
Stockdale will get the starts at fullback against Italy and France. It was why Hugo Keenan did not get the 15 jersey for his Ireland debut. Farrell & Co. want to take a long, hard look at Lowe so they want to accommodate a guy who has delivered for them in the past.
They feel he is worth the investment in faith and patience. In truth, as much as Stockdale's form has been patchy, he deserves another crack or two in the starting XV. He is more than capable of being that matchwinner again.
Rob Herring, his Ulster and Ireland teammate, agrees with that sentiment.
"Yeah, definitely," he says. "Jacob has been playing at fullback for Ulster and I think he started to find a really good bit of form.
"Last week against the Ospreys he had a really outstanding game and he's ready to go, he's put in the hard yards in training and he's looking really good, he's a confident bloke and I think we can expect a good game from him this weekend."
Still, another question followed on Stockdale. Herring backed him to the hilt.
"Yeah, 100%, he cares a lot about his performances and what he adds to the team but he’s the kind of guy that will work on it and make sure he’s next time. I know the last few games he’s been really good so he’s ready to go."
Stockdale is nowhere near the last chance saloon. He's got far too much about him. Still, he knows himself that there are some folks that need convincing.
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