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Stockdale determined to 'work his arse off' through try-scoring drought

The brilliant wing has not crossed the try-line for Ulster since January.

IT IS NOW 11 months since Jacob Stockdale last crossed the whitewash for Ulster,

With 26 tries in 58 appearances for Ulster, for him to go through such a drought is a remarkable plateau on the scoring front for the 23-year-old.

Not only are the trademark bounces that had been going his way – think Racing and, more memorably, against the All Blacks – currently eluding him, the ball isn’t coming his way as much as he hoped.

This time last year, Stockdale was being talked about as one of the most lethal finishers in world rugby, let alone Ireland. That predatory instinct certainly hasn’t left him, but his lack of Ulster tries since January leave something of an asterisk.

Therefore, this represents an important moment in Stockdale’s career. All wingers go through dry spells, whether they’re of an international standard like the former Wallace High man or otherwise. Now it’s about how he gets out of that rut.

It will come. He knows that, his coaches know that and the fans know that. It doesn’t make it any less frustrating but, for the meantime, all he can do is find ways to help the team that don’t involve getting over the try line, and that means looking for work.

Like, for example, against Bath. When he kept five points off the scoreboard rather than put them on it. Though in that instance, his try-saving game-winning intervention with the final play probably came to him rather than the other way around. But, given the question marks over his defence over the years, he’ll gladly take it.

jacob-stockdale-arrives File photo: Stockdale arriving at The Rec. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It’s something that I’ve been working on, my defence in general and trying to back up single efforts with double efforts,” reveals Stockdale.

“I saw (Luke Marshall) going, and when your 13 shoots you have to go with him, so I did that and they obviously got the ball away. I just turned and tried to work my arse off to get back and communicate with (John) Cooney to make sure he had Mercer because I thought I could catch up with (Semesa) Rokodoguni and tackle him into touch.

“Luckily Mercer just passed the ball to me instead. And I dived into touch and finished the game off.”

Stockdale is aware that while he’s not among the scorers, he has to be contributing in other ways. He has been too, both from a defensive aspect and from various other aspects, and it’s something that he himself admits must continue to improve.

“It is definitely something that I’m learning, that I don’t have to be scoring tries to be having an impact on the game,” adds the Ireland international.

“Obviously it’s nice to score tries and it’s good fun, but being good in the air or being good defensively or doing the behind the scenes work, really working my arse off in general, those are the kind of things that can make a massive difference. That’s something that I’m learning.”

That realisation first came after returning from an extended stay in Japan. Some might question his sanity after spending an extra 10 days with his family and girlfriend travelling around rural Japan before coming home from the World Cup, but that gave him a relaxing reprieve before the brutal honest review kicked in.

Obviously, the World Cup didn’t go the way anyone dreamed of, but the Lisburn man came home knowing he hadn’t had the impact he wanted.

It didn’t help he barely had the ball, and any time he did he was hunted down by opposition defences, knowing the danger he possesses when given time and space with ball in hand. But after returning to Ulster and being able to put the disappointment behind him, he was able to pinpoint what needed to change from his first appearance on rugby’s biggest stage.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do. Reflecting on his maiden experience, and likely not his last, at the World Cup required him to delve deep into some difficult moments, but in the end, the winger is confident that it will make him a better player on the other side.

“I wasn’t necessarily playing badly, I just wasn’t getting the involvements that I wanted,” he grimaces.

There’s obviously, to a certain extent, a frustration because when you’re playing outside a team that aren’t attacking that fluidly, it is frustrating as a winger.

“At the same time, there’s a lot more that I could be doing to go looking for the ball and looking for involvements, and that’s something I need to grow into my game a bit more, and it’s definitely something I’m working on.

“It is a frustration because I do back myself as a decent attacker and I want the ball in my hands as much as I can, so hopefully I can get those opportunities over the next few weeks. At the same time, there’s a lot I can do outside of having the ball in my hands to help the team as much as I can.”

There’s also been a lot of growth for Stockdale as a person, too. Being able to handle the frustration of not having the ball as much as he wants and having to bide his time, waiting both for the involvements he talks of and the chance to end his try-scoring duck, has forced him to toughen up mentally.

There’s frustration, naturally, but no anger. While it’s never been in Stockdale’s nature to be hot-headed or angry, it is somewhat refreshing to see that he’s not beating himself up over it, nor is he getting worked up on reflection. It’s just a steely determination to ride out the waves and reach calmer waters.

“I said this in a couple of interviews when everything was going my way, and I don’t think too many people believed I actually thought this, but I knew there were going to be times where the ball wouldn’t kick my direction or the pass wouldn’t go to hand, things like that. That’s the nature of rugby, that’s the nature of sport,” he insists.

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jacob-stockdale-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Stockdale celebrates his later try-saver against Bath. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Things aren’t always going to be going your way, but it’s about controlling the controllables, and for me it’s about doing everything I can well. For instance, the Clermont game, I felt that every involvement I had in the game was a good involvement, I just didn’t have that many of them.

“How many involvements you have isn’t something you can control, but the quality of those involvements is something you can control.”

With the way Ulster are going right now, you imagine that sooner rather than later the ball will eventually end up his hands and end up over the line. With Billy Burns eager to drop cross-field kicks into the hands of his wingers time and time again, there’s always a good chance it’ll be a wide man who will get the score in the red zone.

His latest chance to do so comes against Harlequins today (kick-off 15.15, BT Sport)  as Ulster aim to increase their stranglehold on Pool Three of the Heineken Champions Cup and take one step closer to back-to-back appearances in the knockout stages of the tournament at Kingspan Stadium.

A win would make it three wins from three and would have them in an ideal position heading to the Twickenham Stoop next weekend for the second game in the back-to-backs as well, while the feel-good factor around the squad right now has renewed optimism that this team is heading in the right direction.

But for Stockdale, he’s happy to repeat the team mantra: it’s one game at the time right now, and they’re not in the knockouts yet. A smart mentality, even if he does let the curtain fall slightly and admit they are excited by where they are right now as a squad.

“European group games are pretty much knockout games. If you want to have a home quarter-final you have to win every game, to just qualify you need to win five out of six, and I think that is something we are acutely aware of,” he says.

“When you win your first two games it puts you in the driver’s seat, but at the same time it is two out of six done and four left to go.

“There is still obviously a long way to go in terms of the European season, but it definitely gives us a buzz and gives a bit of excitement as well as putting us in the right place.

“But there is still a lot of work to do.”

Harlequins:

15. Ross Chisholm
14. Travis Ismaiel
13. Michele Campagnaro
12. James Lang
11. Gabriel Ibitoye
10. Marcus Smith
9. Danny Care

1. Joe Marler
2. Elia Elia
3. Kyle Sinckler
4. Stephan Lewies
5. Tevita Cavubati
6. Semi Kunatani
7. Chris Robshaw (captain)
8. Alex Dombrandt

Replacements:

16. Jack Musk
17. Nick Auterac
18. Simon Kerrod
19. Dino Lamb
20. Tom Lawday
21. Martin Landajo
22. Francis Saili
23. Vereniki Goneva

Ulster:

15. Jacob Stockdale
14. Louis Ludik
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Craig Gilroy
10. Billy Burns
9. John Cooney

1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rob Herring
3. Marty Moore
4. Alan O’Connor
5. Iain Henderson (captain)
6. Sean Reidy
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Marcell Coetzee

Replacements:

16. Adam McBurney
17. Andrew Warwick
18. Tom O’Toole
19. Kieran Treadwell
20. Matthew Rea
21. David Shanahan
22. Bill Johnston
23. Matt Faddes

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