Jacob Stockdale delivers best news of Andy Farrell's Christmas
"It's nice to get over the whitewash again. It's awesome to have a good game and get back into the swing of things."
For Jacob Stockdale and Ulster, that's more like it.
Back in early November, Ulster headed down to Thomond Park to take on a strong Munster XV. Having trailed 15-6 at the break, a converted Rob Herring try and a John Cooney penalty put Ulster ahead before Andrew Conway settled the tie with a superb solo try. Ulster only escaped with a losing bonus point when Tyler Bleyendaal missed a late penalty.
With Dan McFarland also going with a strong starting line-up, it was not the result Ulster wanted heading into their Champions Cup away date with Bath. There were well-founded concerns that this Ulster side were lacking squad depth and quality beyond the strongest XV and that the season could get away from them if they did not hit the ground running in Europe.
Inspired by Cooney and Marcell Coetzee, Ulster put themselves in a winning position against the Premiership side but were struggling to close out the game. Coetzee won a huge turnover with 78 minutes on the clock but Ulster gifted the hosts possession back for one more cut.
Zach Mercer made a line break, with the game clock well past 82 minutes, and the No.8 had winger Semesa Rokoduguni in support. Stockdale read the situation, instructed Cooney to cover Mercer while he sprinted back and intercepted the pass meant for Rokoduguni. Try-saver. Game over.
Woaahh Jacob Stockdale 🤯🤯
An astonishing piece of defending to save the win for Ulster 👏pic.twitter.com/6JUxHmvd2V
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) November 16, 2019
That game included, Ulster have won seven of their last eight games. They have the second best points total in the Guinness PRO14 (36 points) after 10 games and are on the brink of reaching the Champions Cup knock-out stages for the second consecutive season.
McFarland has put out hefty line-ups for much of that run, with the likes of Henderson, Coetzee, Stockdale, Cooney, Billy Burns and Iain Henderson all totting up the match minutes. Momentum is with the northern province and their head coach wants to press the accelerator before the matches get sparse in February and March.
Stockdale has played a couple of games at fullback, home and away in the wins over Harlequins, but he was back on the left wing after Will Addison returned from his four-game suspension. Against Munster, on Friday, he put in one of his best performances of the season. That would have been a welcome Christmas gift for new Ireland coach Andy Farrell and it just happened to be topped off with a late intercept try.
Stockdale has scored 43 tries in 86 games for Ulster and Ireland but his game-clincher against Munster broke the longest drought of his professional career. He had gone 10 games without crossing the whitewash for his province and he later told Ulster Rugby TV how much the score meant to him.
That try pumped up Stockdale's final match figures of 108 metres gained off just seven carries with two clean breaks and four defenders beaten. The Ulster forwards laid the platform while the backs - Cooney, Robert Baloucoune, Stockdale and the excellent Stuart McCloskey - finished off the chances that came their way as a result.
Ahead of that Ulster win, on Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby, Andrew Trimble attempted to select the province's best backline and was left with some tough choices to make.
"I'd go Cooney and Burns at 9 and 10. I was also chatting to Mike Lowry there and he's back running this week. I have a soft spot for him; I think he's class. When he is fully fit, he could challenge for a starting spot.
"Jacob on the left, McCloskey and Luke Marshall in the centre, Baloucoune on the right and Addison at fullback. I'd then go Dave Shanahan, Mike Lowry and Craig Gilroy on the bench. Gilroy could even be starting ahead of Stockdale as I think Baloucoune is playing out of his skin at the minute. And then you had Louis Ludik, who was flying until he picked up an injury there."
Such is the rich seam of form Ulster are in right now - their only loss in two months is when they sent a weakened match-day squad to play Leinster at The RDS - that Trimble would seriously countenance benching such a talent like Stockdale.
He kept faith, though, just like McFarland and Stockdale came up with his first Ulster try in just under 12 months against Munster. During that time he did score four Ireland tries [taking him to 16 in 25 Test appearances] but that score for his home province will top up his confidence heading into two more big European games.
Saturday sees Stockdale and Ulster take on Clermont at Stade Marcel Michelin. The challenge is a daunting one but another victory for Ulster could all but seal a home quarter final in the Champions Cup and convert the last of the doubters.
Looking ahead to the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, Farrell may well go with an Irish back three of Stockdale and Conway on the wings with Jordan Larmour at fullback. Addison, Keith Earls and Dave Kearney [seven tries so far this season] may yet play themselves into contention in the coming weeks too.
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Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble look back on all the festive inter-pro action and discuss Ireland's first squad gathering under Andy Farrell.