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'You have to take everything with a pinch of salt': Stockdale keen to give the hype a wide berth

Ulster take on Harlequins tonight and the 21-year-old is having to tolerate all eyes on him after a fine autumn.

Image: Dan Sheridan ; ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan/INPHO

YOU WOULD FORGIVE Jacob Stockdale for having a high opinion of himself. After all, he has been the talk of nearly every Irish rugby writer for the last two months.

Nine tries from nine games this season, a breakthrough into the national set-up and the winning score against Harlequins at a snowy Stoop last weekend is just the latest in his exploits since August.

It’s worth remembering that a year and a half ago he was still an Academy player with Ulster, looking to make the most of whatever minutes he could get on the pitch in an extremely talented back line. Now he’s one of the first names on the teamsheet for both club and country.

And yet the 21-year old has a wise head on young shoulders. A visit this week to his old college, Wallace High, shows he hasn’t forgotten where he comes from, while he also holds an ambassadorial role with local junior team the Lurgan Tigers.

“It’s been great so far,” Stockdale says of his impact on the Tigers. “My role is whatever the club need me to do, if I have time and it’s not too much, then I’m more than happy to do it.

“It’s been really great craic so far and it’s been nice to get back to Lurgan Rugby Club because I’ve been in Lurgan for six or seven years now, and to be able to help them has been great.”

In fact, speaking to the fresh-faced winger – who will line up in that same position against Quins again tonight in the second of the back-to-back Champions Cup games – you wouldn’t think he was the same person who received so many plaudits for his performances over the autumn.

Tries against the Springboks and Argentina, and two more all-round outstanding performances, only served to underline his remarkable rise and solidify his place in that green No.11 jersey.

Jacob Stockdale Source: Jonathan Porter; ©INPHO/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

At the conclusion of the international break, all eyes were firmly on him after an eye-catching November. Gone were the questions over whether he could make it on the international stage, this kid was for real.

You’d think he’d be playing into that hype. Not at all.

“I think it’s easy to get caught up in how good you’re playing, or how successful you’re being, but one bad game can turn that round and you’ll have people saying ‘oh, maybe he isn’t as good as we thought he was’,” he explains.

“You have to take everything with a pinch of salt. It’s only good performances that can create a bit of a buzz, it’s just working hard to get those performances.

“I think the guys (at Ulster) make it easy,” he continues. “They keep you firmly grounded. It’s easy when you’re going back into Ulster and having to work hard, you don’t have time to think too much about people saying how good you are.”

Ironically, Stockdale is still wearing an Ulster Academy shirt while doing his media duties – not a ploy to keep him grounded, he claims, but rather a clothing mix-up at the house he shares with Academy trio Adam McBurney, Jack Regan and Marcus Rea.

Instead he has progressed well beyond an Academy hopeful into arguably Ulster’s most dangerous player – a high accolade in a team that contains superstar All Black Charles Piutau, such has been his effectiveness for Les Kiss’ side.

At just 21 his career is still stretching out ahead of him, but Stockdale already sees himself as one of the players within the squad who should be pushing others on despite his youth.

“I feel very comfortable with all the guys. If I try to drive to standards and stuff, I don’t think they’d be going, ‘what’s this 21-year old doing, he’s only just here?’” he believes.

“At the same time there’s guys here who have been playing for Ireland for a long, long time. Tommy (Bowe) and Trimby (Andrew Trimble), you have to respect that.”

This week is another chance to impress on Europe’s biggest stage as Harlequins roll into Belfast for the return leg of their back-to-back pool games in the Champions Cup (kick-off 7:45pm).

The 17-5 win in London last week – impressive for both how Ulster performed as well as how they adapted to the conditions – has renewed belief that the northern province can make the knockouts for the first time since 2014.

Jacob Stockdale celebrates after the game Source: Ryan Byrne; ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It moved them back up into second in the pool, still a long way off runaway leaders La Rochelle, but a bonus point win over an understrength Quins outfit – minus big names Joe Marler, Chris Robshaw and Danny Care – would only further that belief of a place in the last eight.

On paper it looks like a home banker. Ulster, without only a small handful of big names, will be expected to secure at least four tries against an already eliminated and much-changed team opposing them.

Stockdale does not agree, warning: “They’re out of Europe but won’t by any means come over here and roll over and give us an easy win. They’re an incredibly spirited club and they’re an incredibly skilled club, so I think it’s going to be a tough game.

“It’s European Cup week, they never come easy, so we’re expecting a real hard fight again.”

Still, a place in the last eight wouldn’t go amiss for the Ulsterman, who would obviously love to see his team succeed, but also would love a crack at an elimination match for the first time in the professional game.

“I’ve never got to experience knockout rugby and it’s something I’m really keen to get an opportunity to do,” he confesses.

“To get to the quarter finals in Europe would be massive for us as a team and for me personally, but at the same time there’s an awful lot of rugby and we’ll have to take each week as it comes, work hard and get one win after another.

The next three, maybe even four games, are massive for us. These are four must win games, how your December goes can impact how you’re set up for the rest of the season, so it’s massively important.”

It hasn’t been an easy few weeks for Ulster, and it’s no surprise that they’ve struggled without Stockdale who, as he stands up to go, reveals a tattoo of a cross on his right bicep, a reflection of his Christian faith.

He also has faith that Ulster can provide him with that knockout rugby, and you can guarantee he’ll be at the forefront of that charge.

Ulster Rugby

15. Charles Piutau; 14. Craig Gilroy, 13. Louis Ludik, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Jacob Stockdale; 10. Christian Lealiifano, 9. John Cooney; 1. Callum Black, 2. Rob Herring, 3. Wiehahn Herbst, 4. Alan O’Connor, 5. Kieran Treadwell, 6. Iain Henderson, 7. Chris Henry, 8. Nick Timoney

Replacements: 16. John Andrew, 17. Andy Warwick, 18. Ross Kane, 19. Matt Rea, 20. Sean Reidy, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Peter Nelson, 23. Andrew Trimble

Harlequins

15. Ross Chisholm; 14. Charlie Walker, 13. Winston Stanley, 12. Jamie Roberts, 11. Alofa Alofa; 10. Marcus Smith, 9. Ian Prior; 1. Lewis Boyce, 2. Elia Elia, 3. Kyle Sinckler, 4. George Merrick, 5. Charlie Matthews, 6. Archie White, 7. Dave Ward, 8. Renaldo Bothma

Replacements: 16. Charlie Piper, 17. Mark Lambert, 18. Phil Swainston, 19. Mat Luamanu, 20. Dino Lamb, 21. James Lang, 22. Tim Visser, 23. Mike Brown

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