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Dublin: 4 °C Tuesday 19 February, 2019
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Stockdale's finishing skills reward Ulster's clever set-piece thinking

The northern province scored three tries from set-piece platforms against Racing 92 last weekend.

IT WAS JACOB Stockdale who grabbed the headlines for Ulster last weekend, with his two tries understandably earning him widespread plaudits.

The Ireland international’s finishing prowess was on show at Kingspan Stadium as Ulster overturned Racing 92 to keep their hopes of topping Pool 4 of the Heineken Champions Cup alive.

Jacob Stockdale celebrates with fans Stockdale scored two of Ulster's three tries. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

But Stockdale was put into position to score through some intelligent set-piece attacks from Dan McFarland’s side, on what was a satisfying day for attack coach Dwayne Peel. 

Ulster’s quality on set-piece attack was evident from early in the game, with a clever kick from out-half Billy Burns forcing Racing to exit to touch – handing Ulster their first lineout platform. McFarland’s men pounced clinically over two phases.

The northern province use a six-man lineout to launch, with inevitable pressure coming from Racing, who possess one of the best lineout defences in world rugby.

After Sean Reidy moves to the front of the lineout, Keiran Treadwell shifts towards the tail [red below] as if to lift Alan O’Connor [4] from the front, even pointing to his locking partner.

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The aim is to draw Baptiste Chouzenoux with Treadwell [as indicated in blue], and the Racing back row does initially mirror Treadwell’s movement.

But as Treadwell then turns back to the touchline to jump [white below], with Eric O’Sullivan lifting in front and O’Connor performing that duty from behind, we can see that Chouzenoux has read that intention and is moving to jump himself [blue].

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Crucially, Treadwell gets into the air a split-second before Chouzenoux but the Racing flanker still gets off the ground with the kind of explosive jump that makes him and several others in the French team’s pack such a threat.

With Leone Nakarawa and Wenceslas Lauret lifting him, Chouzenoux is still a danger to the ball in the air, meaning Rory Best’s throw – which has left his hands before Treadwell or Chouzenoux jump – needs to be perfect. 

Fortunately for Ulster, the captain nails his duty, arcing a superb throw up towards where Treadwell is going to arrive.

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As we can see above, Treadwell is at full stretch collecting the ball, while lifters O’Sullivan and O’Connor have also fully-extended.

It’s perfect from Ulster’s point of view because the ball arcs over Chouzenoux’s attempt to steal or spoil. Any lower and the Racing man might have got a hand in to kill the set-piece attack before it even got going.

With the lineout having delivered clean ball off the top to scrum-half Dave Shanahan, the pre-planned attack kicks into gear around Burns.

Because the lineout has been won towards the front of the lineout, Racing tailgunner - the defensive ‘receiver’ just in behind the lineout - Dimitri Szarzewski is able to get out across the 15-metre line to feature as a defender.

With Marcell Coetzee – the Ulster forward not involved in the lineout – part of the backline attack, it means a congested midfield area but Ulster create space to use Coetzee’s ball-carrying power.

Carry

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Coetzee starts tucked in behind Stuart McCloskey, who is also a major carrying threat to Racing’s defence on lineout attack.

As we can see below, McCloskey angles his run away from Burns, aiming to draw opposite number Henry Chavancy in that direction [as indicated in yellow].

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On the inside of Burns, Stockdale is lurking and he occupies Szarzewski [as indicated in blue above].

Burns himself, on the ball, attracts the defensive interest of Antonie Claassen [red].

That leaves Coetzee coming from his position just in behind McCloskey thundering forward into Finn Russell’s defensive channel.

As the clip above shows, Russell does cling onto Coetzee as he tackles low, with Claassen adjusting to help him finish the tackle, but Ulster get beyond the gainline on first phase. 

McCloskey, Stockdale and Marty Moore – coming from the very tail of the lineout – are designated to resource the breakdown, with McCloskey clearing deep on Claassen.

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McCloskey clearing Claassen deep serves to impede any Racing defenders looking to fold around the corner and also ensures Claassen is pinned to the ground, rather than able to bounce back up – though it’s worth noting that McCloskey does then release him and put his hands in the air as if to say, ‘No infringement here!’

With lightning-quick ball at the recycle, Ulster take their chance on second phase.

Score

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There’s good work-rate from Reidy [white below] and Jordi Murphy [red] to make runs around the corner, offering themselves up as possible ball-carrying options off Shanahan on second phase.

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We can see above that Racing are very narrow in their defence as a result of the big carry over the gainline from Coetzee and the rapid recycle of possession.

Murphy and Reidy’s runs serve to further accentuate that narrowness, briefly attracting the eyes of Racing’s tight defenders in towards them as they hurtle around the corner.

Ulster’s intention, however, is to strike wide and they do so to take full advantage of how narrow Racing are. 

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Fullback Louis Ludik angles his run towards the touchline [red above] as Burns delivers a skip pass in front of Will Addison [white].

The pass needs to be perfect so Ludik doesn’t have to check his run and can really question Juan Imhoff’s outside shoulder, and Burns delivers.

Even with Imhoff’s searing pace, he is playing catch-up and Ludik targets the inside shoulder of Racing fullback Brice Dulin [red below].

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Ludik just needs to interest Dulin for long enough to give Robert Baloucoune outside him time and space to use his pace to finish.

To be fair to Imhoff, he has worked hard to cover across onto Ludik and is in position to tackle him, but Dulin has just enough doubt in his mind not to drift out onto Baloucoune earlier than he does.

By the time Ludik passes the ball, Dulin has left it too late and can’t recover to even get a hand on the pacy Baloucoune, the Enniskillen man scoring a try on his Heineken Champions Cup debut.

There is no ‘safety-net’ cover for Racing in behind Dulin because of the rapid nature of the recycle after Coetzee’s carry, but also because of the position of it. 

Right wing Simon Zebo [red below] initially moves as if to cover across behind the line on first phase but Coetzee’s carry sees him stop in the backfield, seemingly worried about Ulster bouncing back against the grain.

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Scrum-half Maxime Machenaud [white above], having briefly checked Racing’s defence on the left of the breakdown, realises the possible danger and accelerates across in the split-second above but he comes nowhere close to getting near Baloucoune as Ulster’s excellent set-piece strike works to five-point effect.

Intriguingly, Racing’s concerns about a bounce-back attack above proved to be something of a premonition of what was to come from Ulster’s second lineout of the game.

Again, Ulster use a six-man lineout with scrum-half Shanahan as the receiver and again, the throw from Best is excellent.

1

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There is more pre-throw movement from Ulster, bringing O’Connor into the middle of the lineout to be lifted by O’Sullivan and Murphy.

Again, Racing compete through Chouzenoux but again, Best’s throw is on the money and allows O’Connor to deliver clean ball off the top to Shanahan.

2

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Ulster’s set-up off the lineout is very different this time, however.

McCloskey [12 below] is the first receiver, with Shanahan skipping the ball across the face of Jacob Stockdale [11].

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Addison [13] is running a short line just off McCloskey, while Ludik [15] is showing out the back for a possible pullback pass.

Wider out, Burns [10] and Coetzee [8] lie in wait, as if to feature on the next phase after McCloskey carries. 

There is a hint of what’s to come next, though, in the shot above as we can see Stockdale [11] already retreating towards the left touchline after running his decoy line off the lineout.

McCloskey makes a powerful carry into Claassen and Russell, getting Ulster over the gainline to kick-start their attack and allowing Treadwell to thunder around the corner to carry on second phase after Moore, Ludik and Addison resource the ruck.

3

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As Treadwell carries the ball – making another big dent into the Racing defence – we can see further hints of what is to follow.

Ludik and Addison [white below] are working to rapidly shift across towards the left touchline.

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Stockdale has already reached the touchline on that left-hand side, while Reidy has held in that area of the pitch [both in red].

O’Sullivan [yellow] has also remained on that side of the pitch, despite the rest of the pack working around the corner – Reidy excepted.

Ulster are now ready to bounce back to their left.

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Moore [yellow below] and Best [white] attempt to sell another carry to the right with their runs around the corner, while Burns, Coetzee and Baloucoune [out of shot holding his width] also keep defenders busy on that side of the ruck.

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But Shanahan is already switching play to the left, where Ulster are in good shape.

O’Sullivan runs a screen line [red below] up ahead of first receiver McCloskey [white] – back on his feet after his initial carry.

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The next wave of the Ulster attack sees Reidy run another screen line [yellow below], with Addison [blue] accepting McCloskey’s pass out the back door.

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The Ulster attack works perfectly in manipulating the disjoined Racing defence.

Chouzenoux is attracted inwards, biting in on McCloskey [red below] as he worries about the Ulster centre’s running threat.

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That, in turn, drags edge defender Zebo into biting in on the decoy line of Reidy [yellow above] and leaves space outside Zebo for Addison to accept the pass from McCloskey and burst into.

Machenaud, who has swept across behind the frontline defence, engages to tackle Addison, who delivers the ball on to Ludik, but Ulster do need a strong finish and a favourable refereeing decision to seal the score.

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As Ludik receives the ball from Addison, Claassen is the final viable defender, having worked across after being bumped by O’Sullivan on his decoy line. 

Ludik doesn’t manage to sit Claassen down before passing on to Stockdale, but the Ireland wing shows his finishing prowess to beat Racing’s number eight.

Upon receiving the ball from Ludik, Stockdale transfers the ball over into his left arm in the blink of an eye, freeing up his right to use to brush Claassen off.

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Stockdale’s motion with his right arm breaks him instantly free of Claassen’s right arm, which needs to get a strong wrap in on Stockdale’s body if he’s going to stop or slow the Ulster wing.

It’s a small detail but combined with Stockdale’s acceleration and power, frees him to finish down the left.

Of course, Ulster still need a TMO review to confirm the try and they get the decision despite Ludik’s pass to Stockdale looking questionable.

“You can’t see on that angle,” says referee Matthew Carley upon review. “Nothing clear and obvious on the review, so it’s a try.”

After a brief pause, TMO Geoff Warren responds, “Ok.”

Ulster’s clever build-up play gets another five-point reward.

Having scored off two lineouts, Ulster’s third and final try came from a scrum platform in the second half.

Ulster set up with a standard-looking backline formation from the left-hand side scrum.

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They look set to attack from their left to right, with Stockdale [11] showing in behind the scrum, as if to join the rest of the backline over on Ulster’s right-hand side.

However, as Ulster play off a rock-solid scrum platform – more superb work from the province’s pack – there is more subterfuge at play. 

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Coetzee pops the ball up to Shanahan and the scrum-half has several options to his right.

McCloskey [red below] runs a hard, flat line just off Shanahan, while Burns [white] arcs behind the inside centre as if to accept a back-door pass.

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Instead, Addison [yellow] is the target as he comes back against the grain, arcing in behind the scrum.

Having accepted the pass from Shanahan, Addison runs hard at blindside flanker Bernard le Roux [white scrum cap], who is coming up from the scrum.

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Addison draws in le Roux before passing, delivering the ball to Stockdale in a one-on-one situation.

Now, ideally, set-piece moves will result in overlaps or numbers-up situations but there is sense in providing one-on-one opportunities [which can be rather rare] for players in the kind of red-hot form Stockdale is enjoying.

The benefits are clear here as Stockdale again shows his wing skills as he immediately steps hard off his right foot to get to the outside of Olivier Klemenczak, while transferring the ball into his left hand, freeing his right arm to fend.

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It’s an accurate fend from Stockdale, as he finds Klemenczak’s right shoulder, which the Racing back needs to get power into his tackle.

Klemenczak, like Claassen, will have been disappointed with his tackle attempt, but Stockdale has the tools to make defenders miss.

Once he’s beaten Klemenczak, Stockdale accelerates down the left and, with Dulin closing across onto him, opts for what is becoming a characteristic chip ahead.

Try

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With Machenaud and Chavancy working hard to get back too, it looks as if Stockdale’s chip is too long and will be gathered in by Chavancy.

Machenaud and Dulin ease off the gas, expecting Chavancy to gather, but the length of the kick actually works in Stockdale’s favour as Chavancy can’t gather it on the full and the ball instead bounces.

Stockdale has stayed alive to the possibility of regathering, even with defenders in front of him, and as the ball evades Chavancy, it finds its home in the Ulster wing’s hands, allowing him to finish for another crucial try built from the set-piece. 

- This article was updated at 9.13pm to correct ‘Reidy’ to ‘O’Sullivan’ in the 12th paragraph and ‘Leinster’ to ‘Ulster’ in the 13th paragraph.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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