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Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# 15s
Fullbacks in focus with Kearney and Stockdale at very different stages
Stockdale is still learning the trade as a fullback and will stand opposite legend battling to earn his place back in Leinster’s first team.

jacob-stockdale Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

WHILE JACOB STOCKDALE was making a reputation for himself as a supreme footballing talent, running from all angles with intentful power as an Ireland U20, the clamour to move on from Rob Kearney as Ireland’s fullback was growing all the louder.

Simon Zebo was not yet in Paris, Jared Payne took the 15 shirt as Ireland beat the Springboks in Cape Town and Tiernan O’Halloran had just lit up the Pro12 final before taking his place on the international tour.

So when Kearney went to pull on the jersey again later that year, Joe Schmidt’s pre-match pep talk went along the lines of: ‘I need a big one from you today.’ Kearney delivered that and more in Chicago against the All Blacks. His enduring class in the fullback role was underlined in heavy ink as he retained the front-line status right through until last year’s World Cup.

rob-kearney Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

This evening, when he lines up opposite Stockdale as Leinster take on Ulster (kick-off 19.35, eir Sport), probably won’t be the last we see of Kearney in the blue of Leinster. But with Jordan Larmour now promoted from heir apparent to apparent first-choice, the bell for his final lap is ringing loud in his ears.

Kearney and Leinster will hope there are five more big matches to play beyond today, but nothing is guaranteed in knockout rugby. This evening is a chance to enjoy Kearney live and in colour for one of the last occasions before his already-extended contract with his native province expires.

“He’s been part of all the big days, really, for Leinster and Ireland. A remarkable career,” says his head coach Leo Cullen.

Cullen has worked in close proximity with Ireland’s other great fullbacks of the pro era. Girvan Dempsey scored iconic tries in green, Geordan Murphy offered more invention in attack. But when the ball was in the air, Cullen is in no doubt about who he would want under it.

“His aerial skills is the thing that sets him apart. he’s just at a different level. That aerial skill, he’s world class, he’s the best there’s probably ever been.

rob-kearney-competes-for-a-high-ball-with-leigh-halfpenny Billy Stickland / INPHO Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny in one of their many duels over the years. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“If you think catching high balls is the number one requirement of a fullback, he’s excelled at that for a very long time. but he’s also got a lot of other strings to his bow. Massive left boot. very strong in contact, so we’re really hoping Rob goes well this weekend.”

Cullen added: “He’s just excited. It is what it is for him. he wants to enjoy his time, he wants to go out and put his hand up (for future selections).

“I think he sort of feels he’s the young player coming through. It’s important for him to get excited about the back three there with young guys in Cian kelleher and Hugo Keenan on the wings.”

At the other end of the pitch tonight, Stockdale will be at the other end of the scale when it comes to fullback experience. This will be his seventh senior pro start as Ulster’s fullback – he is quick to brush off his U20 experiences there as irrelevant, the standard is too far removed.

The 24-year-old is a powerful presence in aerial duels himself, an asset that has evidently helped him settle in to the fullback role and enjoy a little more freedom as long as he has the fitness to cover more ground.

northern-ireland-ulster-riugby-ireland-irfu-john-dickson-dicksondigital-kingspan John Dickson Ulster Rugby and their main sponsor, Kingspan, are encouraging fans to #StandUpTogether, as they unveiled a special edition jersey to be worn for this Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 fixture with Leinster. John Dickson

“In some respects, once you get that communication, fullback becomes a lot easier,” says Stockdale on the subject of Kearney’s lauded steady hand in organising a back three.

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“On the wing, I would argue that it’s probably harder to defend because you have to be able to defend both the front line and the back field. Whereas with fullback you only really have to worry about the back field unless something goes pretty wrong.

“I don’t know if you necessarily need more experience to play fullback than wing. The experience I’ve gained on the wing has definitely helped me to play at fullback because I know what my wingers want from me if that makes sense.

“A large part of that was definitely playing with Kearns, playing for Ireland and just realising what he did and the communication he gave me which made my life easier and a lot more comfortable.”

jacob-stockdale-and-rob-kearney Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

He adds: “Me and (Jared) Payno would talk about the backfield and how it’s going pretty much every session. He’s definitely a good source of knowledge for, you know, the tricks of the trade I guess, kind of like figuring out on when you don’t need to run to that space because you don’t need to cover it.

“It’s been really helpful having Jared there just to go through my role at 15 and being able to learn off him.”

Stockdale is hoping to further his time as a fullback, not because he desperately wants to operate from the back-field, but because the versatility will make him a better player.

Taking one last, or maybe second-last, lesson from a head-to-head with Kearney this evening won’t hurt either.

Ulster

15. Jacob Stockdale
14. Matt Faddes
13. James Hume
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Rob Lyttle
10. Ian Madigan
9. John Cooney

1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rob Herring
3. Tom O’Toole
4. Sam Carter Capt
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. vMatthew Rea
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Marcell Coetzee.

Replacements:

16. John Andrew
17. Kyle McCall
18. Marty Moore
19. Alan O’Connor
20. Nick Timoney
21. David Shanahan
22. Bill Johnston
23. Louis Ludik

Leinster

15. Rob Kearney
14. Hugo Keenan
13. Rory O’Loughlin
12. Ciarán Frawley
11. Cian Kelleher
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Ed Byrne Capt
2. Seán Cronin
3. Michael Bent
4. Devin Toner
5. Ross Molony
6. Josh Murphy
7. Will Connors
8. Max Deegan

Replacements

16. James Tracy
17. Michael Milne
18. Tom Clarkson
19. Rhys Ruddock
20. Scott Penny
21. Rowan Osborne
22. Harry Byrne
23. Jimmy O’Brien

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