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'It was great to see' - Luke Fitzgerald hails Stockdale's match-saving tackle against Bath as evidence of healing

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Jacob Stockdale made a match-saving defensive play in Ulster's Champions Cup win over Bath. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile

Jacob Stockdale made a match-saving defensive play in Ulster's Champions Cup win over Bath. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Jacob Stockdale made a match-saving defensive play in Ulster's Champions Cup win over Bath. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile

The post-World Cup healing process for Irish rugby took another step forward last weekend with a Champions Cup clean sweep across all four provinces.

While Leinster and Munster cruised to relatively straightforward wins, albeit with a typically last-gasp Munster drive required to secure their bonus point, the tight wins enjoyed by Connacht and particularly Ulster will undoubtedly have provided a fillip for those players still getting over their bruising Japanese adventure.

And none more so than Jacob Stockdale, whose stunning 83rd-minute tackle on Bath’s Semesa Rokoduguni saved a certain try and ensured the Ulstermen clung on for a 17-16 win at the Rec.

But as ex-Ireland international Luke Fitzgerald told this week’s The Left Wing, it wasn’t just the tackle but the lead up to it that was most impressive.

"It was brilliant. I was delighted because he was so bad against the All-Blacks so it was great to see," Fitzgerald told the Independent.ie rugby podcast, in association with Aldi.

"Funnily enough, it was the bit before it I preferred. It was the first time I’ve seen him not go for the intercept. His angle was right, the guy got the ball away but it was perfect defence. And then obviously, the chase-back.

"Look, if you’re not chasing back in those circumstances, there’s a bigger issue. If you’re not wanting it in a crucial part of a game like a Heineken Cup tie away to Bath and you’re not chasing back to intercept that then I'd go through him.

"But what I did like was the proper defence the moment before. I was thinking his angle was right, his timing was good. He didn’t quite wrap the arms but it was an excellent bit of defence and I was delighted for him."

Stockdale’s own 2019 was almost a microcosm of Ireland’s after a 2018 that had marked him out as a potential great. A record seven tries in six games as Ireland secured the Grand Slam saw the youngster claim the Player of the Championship award.

Another barnstorming try as Ireland finally beat the All-Blacks on home soil that November topped off the year as the hype for the World Cup went into overdrive.

But an error in preventing Elliot Daly's first-half try in the opening Six Nations defeat to England set the tone for a tough year. Tries against Scotland and Italy were rare enough bright spots in a season that completely derailed at club level in the Champions Cup quarter-final.

The close 21-18 defeat to Leinster would be bad enough in any circumstances but for it to finish that close after Stockdale had made what Brian O’Driscoll called an “unforgivable error” attempting to ground the ball with one hand after crossing the line and knocking on was crushing for the player.

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Josh van der Flier of Leinster during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 1 match between Leinster and Benetton at the RDS Arena in Dublin last weekend. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Josh van der Flier of Leinster during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 1 match between Leinster and Benetton at the RDS Arena in Dublin last weekend. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

And while most felt a degree of sympathy after Stockdale’s very public mea culpa, a poor World Cup as Ireland imploded brought a torrid international year to a torrid end for the 23-year old last month.

So the winger’s reaction on Saturday as he came out of the tackle with ball in hand before spiking it American football style into the turf resembled a pressure valve being released. Fitzgerald thinks that release can be built upon to see the obvious potential fulfilled,

"We crucified him and rightly so because he was really bad against New Zealand. I just didn’t like some of the antics either. Remember he knocked down the ball and he was laughing and smiling about it? That should have been a yellow card as well which could have made things worse," he added.

"He was just all over the place, didn’t look focussed or that he’s considered the defensive part of the game which is such a huge part of it against New Zealand. He hadn’t done his research for the George Bridge break, there were lots of things that were really bad.

"My frustration with him is I feel everyone jumped oi the bandwagon and he’s kind of believed it a bit because no one’s pulled him up on it in Ulster. It’s really important he develops the defensive part of his game.

"He’s a huge man and a brilliant athlete. He’s definitely a smart footballer, we can see that from how he is going forward. If he does the defensive bit right, he could be one of the greats."

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