Thursday 19 April 2018

Jacob Stockdale the leading light in winter of content

Ireland and Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale goes over to score a try against Argentina. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Ireland and Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale goes over to score a try against Argentina. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Three wins in front of full-houses, 36 caps handed out and a move up the World Rugby rankings to No 3 represents a good month's work for Ireland.

With the players back in the provinces, the national team coaches will be sifting through the footage to determine who made a case for next year's Six Nations, who took a step backwards and who needs to be stored away for future use.

Before Christmas, Joe Schmidt will gather the troops to debrief on November and begin planning towards spring. Then, the senior men will get some down-time during the interpros and when they join up again in January it will be all systems go.

First, the head coach will review the footage from a window of opportunity for so many players and draw conclusions as to which ones will play a role in Paris on February 2.

Rising stock

The breakout star of the November internationals was undoubtedly Jacob Stockdale.

Schmidt may play his contribution down publicly, but privately he'll be very pleased with a player who scored three tries in two games and showed no lack of self-belief in taking the game to South Africa and Argentina.

They didn't make the same impact, but Stockdale's former U-20 team-mates from the 2016 World Cup James Ryan and Andrew Porter also made their mark and are likely to have Six Nations involvement.

The here and now is important, but 2019 is also in Schmidt's mind and this trio of 21-year-olds are being fast-tracked into the side.

To see them thriving will hearten the coach.

Spinal core

Barring injury, a number of positions look locked down for the Six Nations already as Schmidt can draw comfort from a strong core running through his team.

In Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong, he has a front-row fit to take on anyone in the world, Iain Henderson is now the first-choice second-row, while the back-row of Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and CJ Stander will only be disrupted by a return to fitness from Jamie Heaslip or some next-level performances from Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy or Josh van der Flier.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton own the No 9 and 10 jerseys, while Robbie Henshaw is the midfield anchor and Rob Kearney can relax about the No 15 shirt after a superb window.

Stockdale is a certain starter on the left and, while there were decent auditions, no one did enough to dislodge Keith Earls who missed the games with injury but lost no ground.

Reputations on the rise

Chris Farrell took advantage of Henshaw's injury to deliver a good performance against Argentina last weekend.

The Munster centre faces a spell on the sidelines having injured himself in the process, but he has made gains in a crowded midfield pecking order.

His provincial colleagues Andrew Conway, Darren Sweetnam and Dave Kilcoyne have also improved their standing in the squad.

Conway featured in all three games, while Kilcoyne leap-frogged Jack McGrath into the squad and did well, while Sweetnam showed glimpses of promise.

Joey Carbery was unfortunate to get injured but showed enough to suggest he'll play a big role in the spring, while Ian Keatley impressed against Fiji.

Ruddock had a good window to back up his excellent Leinster form, while hooker Rob Herring was another who appears to have caught Schmidt's eye and the No 16 shirt is his to lose.

Backwards step

They are the two players who have featured the most under Schmidt, but in the fifth season of the New Zealander's stewardship Jack McGrath and Devin Toner are feeling the ground shift beneath them.

A Test Lion in June, McGrath found himself in the unusual position of being on the outside looking in for both the big games this month and must be concerned as he heads back to Leinster.

A hip problem affected his involvement for the opener against South Africa, yet in previous windows he'd have been pressed into service. This time, he was simply omitted. The Irish management trust an in-form and firing McGrath, but he needs a big two months in blue to get his place back.

Similarly, Toner has now found himself left out of two big games in this calendar year. In March, he was dropped for the England clash and then James Ryan was preferred for the Argentina win. Once a mainstay who ran the lineout, his place is now under real threat for the spring Tests.

Much to prove

Bundee Aki began his international career with a thundering hit that took Coenie Oosthuizen out of the Springbok tour, but while he played well against South Africa there were elements of his game that didn't hit the heights expected.

He needs time to get used to Test rugby, but the Kiwi centre must improve his handling to fend off the returning Garry Ringrose from the team. If Jared Payne proves his fitness, he could complicate things further.

Aki gives Ireland raw physicality in midfield, but he rarely got his attacking game going and if Ringrose hits the ground running then the Connacht man could lose out.

There are plenty of others who had some November involvement but need to impress in Europe to ensure their Six Nations involvement.

The likes of Stuart McCloskey, Jack Conan and Ultan Dillane, who only played against Fiji, know they have plenty of work to do, as does Adam Byrne, while the reserve scrum-halves couldn't make an impression.

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