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'Poor Jacob had to try and make reads that were really difficult'

The Ireland left wing faced criticism for his defensive decisions against England last weekend.

IT’S LONG BEEN said that outside centre is the most difficult position on the rugby pitch to defend.

Wings might have something to say about that these days.

With defences coaches across the top level of the game now demanding ultra-aggressive linespeed as a minimum requirement, wings are often left in highly-exposed positions on the edge of the frontline defence. 

garry-ringrose-jacob-stockdale-and-devin-toner Jacob Stockdale will be sporting a new haircut tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

They have to read the body language of opposition kickers to judge whether the ball is going to be nudged into the backfield and cover that space, while simultaneously being ready to rush forward and shut down passing options in wide channels.

Very often, wings are asked to hammer forward and leave extra attackers in space outside them, the aim being to stop the ball from being moved wide at all. 

And when the defenders inside them fail, perhaps not getting enough width from the ruck or not getting ideal numbers onto one side of the ruck, the wing can be left with extremely demanding decisions to make.

From set-piece, poor work on the interior of the defence or centres biting in too hard can leave a wing with a nightmare decision to make – sit off and hope for defenders inside to reconnect, or thunder forward in a bid to stop the ball before it can be moved to the overlap.

Jacob Stockdale has come in for some harsh criticism in the wake of Ireland’s defeat to England at Twickenham last weekend, but his team-mates know that they left him in bad situations too often.

“I know poor Jacob will probably get blamed from people on the outside looking in but I can assure you, I don’t think any of the tries were down to him,” says Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray. “He’s just so isolated out there when we’re numbers down.

“It’s about defenders on the inside having that awareness that if you’re maybe going to dive into a ruck to try get a turnover and you don’t slow that ball down – especially if you come into the ruck from the openside and you shorten the defensive line – you have got to realise what effect you’re on having on your team-mates outside.

“Usually we are quite good at it and usually that allows us to make reads on the edge and stop attacks, but it was just one of those days where that didn’t happen at all and lads on the outside felt really, really exposed.

“You’re kind of on a hiding to nothing out there. You have to take a risk. You can’t just stand off them and try and shepherd them into the corner.

jacob-stockdale Stockdale was left in tough positions last weekend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Poor Jacob had to try and make reads that were really difficult and, at times, it was easy for England to get that space. That work inside and that awareness of keeping the width is just huge.”

Brian O’Driscoll, a former master defender, also had sympathy for Stockdale out on the left edge of Ireland’s defence.

For example, he looks at the Manu Tuilagi try from a five-metre scrum and notes how Bundee Aki’s pre-emptive decision to bite in on Billy Vunipola was damaging.

“It just looked like he decided he was tackling Billy no matter what and the knock-on effect was catastrophic,” says O’Driscoll. “Bundee was very tight.

“Jacob looks really out of place but he was hung out to dry on that one.”

Similarly to Murray, O’Driscoll felt Stockdale had been left in demanding positions by some of the reads inside him in the Irish defence, while the former Ireland centre also credited the intelligence of the England attack.

The one area O’Driscoll was critical of Stockdale was his decision to attempt an intercept after Cokanasiga had broken through Ireland’s midfield for his try in the second half.

“Jacob can’t be going for intercepts when you’re 45 points down, you’ve just got to make a guy throw an offload or force him to make another pass,” says O’Driscoll.

“Someone throwing a pass, it can be a bad pass or a fumble. The opposition still have to catch it, so you can’t allow someone to run in like that. That would be a frustration for Joe.”

jacob-stockdale Stockdale is on the left wing again this weekend. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

While O’Driscoll does feel Stockdale was left hanging tough against England at times, he’s also keen to see the Ulsterman deliver more physicality when he does actually engage into tackles.

“You’ve got to have an ability to be nasty as well, he’s got to bring that part to his game of really enjoying the physical side. That’s how you become a rounded player and a world-class winger, not just a world-class finisher.

“You look after your aerial game, look after the space in behind you, but also in those one-on-one tackles, you hurt people. That will come with time, he’s still young. He has the frame and then you just marry the technique and intent to that.”

23-year-old Stockdale gets another chance in the green shirt against Wales tomorrow, when he will hope to get back into try-scoring form, having last dotted down – for province and country – in February.

The Ulsterman will be patient if chances don’t come his way, as he continues to learn and grow as a Test rugby wing.

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Murray Kinsella

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