'Get the ball in his hands and make people tackle him': Payne excited by Stockdale threat

The Ulster defence coach has watched the 24-year-old evolve his understanding of a new position over the past year.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

ALTHOUGH JACOB STOCKDALE did have a few senior starts as a fullback to his name before last season, his growth as a 15 really gathered pace over the course of the last year.

Even since rugby’s restart in August.

The 24-year-old counts five of his seven appearances for Ulster since the summer as a starting 15. And this Saturday he will make his second start in the space of a week in that position for Ireland.

Stockdale’s ability in the air was already clear from his wing play and that is part of the reason coaches have nudged him to fullback. But his defence coach at Ulster, an international fullback himself in Jared Payne, feels that the most exciting element of  Stockdale’s positional shift is his running threat.

“He got the ball at the back and expressed himself, didn’t he? He had a good crack,” says Payne of Stockdale’s Test bow at 15 against Italy.

“His game’s going on an upward curve. He has a few kinks to iron out, there’s always going to be when you’re playing at the back for a first time at a decent level.”

He was given starts for Ulster as a fullback in 2017, but last December against Harlequins saw Stockdale begin his serious trial runs there. Payne can chart improvement and possibly perception on Stockdale’s behalf since then.

“He’s realised there’s a bit more hard work involved back there. Some of his timing in attack he’s learning and improving on. Some of his positioning in defence he’s improving on.

“It’s a big learning curve for him, he spent a lot of time on the wing. There’s always aspects he can improve on, learn and get better at.

The big thing for Jacob is just getting the ball in his hands, mate, that’s when he’s really gonna hurt (teams) back there.

“There’s always going to be people who need to improve on bits and pieces and tidy things up. It doesn’t matter if you’ve played one game or a hundred.

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“His biggest strength is get the ball in his hands, have a crack and make people tackle him. He’s bringing that to the position, which is pleasing to see.”

jared-payne Payne's last match for Ireland was as a fullback in the 2017 win over England. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Perhaps the best example of Stockdale’s counter-attacking threat in the position resulted in a disallowed try for Hugo Keenan in Ireland’s 50-17  win over Italy. The former Sevens star was left to bemoan a chance of debut hat-trick lost, while the Ulster star was frustrated by the decision to strike off his thrilling break.

“I don’t think your man would have been anywhere near me even if he hadn’t run into James Ryan,” says Stockdale.

“That’s something that I was really excited by at (the thought of) playing fullback. Getting a bit more opportunity to run the ball back and in an ideal world create a bit of havoc for the defence on the other side of the ball.

“I was pleased how that went. Can still take it to another level.

“Going into the Six Nations, playing fullback was something I was excited by. I was glad I was able to show (good form) at the weekend, but there’s a lot to be worked on and an opportunity to keep growing in the jersey.”

Payne is speaking from Belfast hours after Stockdale was on Ireland media duty in Dublin, but the Kiwi touches on that same ‘growth’ his successor in the jersey speaks of when he hails his ‘willingness to learn’.

Feeling your way into a position against Italy is one step in the right direction, but taking on France in his second Test start there will require another big leap from the new fullback.

“They’ve scored a number of tries off those contestable kicks and it’s (about) cleaning up the scraps because they make a bit of a mess of it at the back.

“It’s going to be a big challenge for me, going into this week, in dealing with those kicks in the air and their kicking game, and trying to keep it as tidy as possible at the back. Because those are the opportunities they live off.

“We’re going to have to make sure we are switched on the entire time we are on the pitch, because they are masters at creating something out of nothing and scoring tries off the back of plays where you think you, pretty much, have them shut down.”

Ireland will hope that is no longer an exclusively French quality.

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Sean Farrell

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