Monday 14 October 2019

Grounded Stockdale sets himself an aerial challenge as he makes his seasonal bow

Six Nations try-scoring star knows he can make improvements to his game and time out with hamstring injury has allowed him to take stock

Jacob Stockdale returns for Ulster. Photo: Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale returns for Ulster. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The higher a tree rises, the deeper it is buried beneath the earth.

Jacob Stockdale spent much of last season on cloud nine but he realised during the summer what it felt like to be grounded.

Only the merest of tumbles, it must be said, but humbling enough for the 22-year-old who completed a dream Six Nations by scoring a championship record seven tries as Ireland secured a third Grand Slam.

Onwards to Australia and more history for Ireland but first, Stockdale had to swallow disappointment as he was dropped for the second Test after defeat in the first, a day when Israel Folau ruled the skies.

The Ulster man was grounded, if only momentarily. Stockdale has since, if you like, taken stock.

"Everybody has areas to work on," says the scorching wing, returning to action following a lengthy lay-off with hamstring trouble as Ulster seek to cast last weekend's embarrassing record defeat to one side.

Weakness

"I'm a bit of a perfectionist. Even stuff that isn't a weakness I want to improve. My high-ball game is something that I thought was a strength of mine but there are players out there who are better.

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"You look at the first game in Australia and Israel Folau was better than me in the air. That's something that really annoyed me.

"So that's something that I've gone away and worked on. There's other stuff that you keep chipping away at every day.

"The more you play the more you realise you're not the finished article. I've learnt that at PRO14 level, I've learnt that at European level and now I've learnt that at Test level.

"There's always guys that are better than you at certain things. But you've got to make sure that you're racing against yourself and making yourself better rather than worrying about other guys."

Hence, he will also not be waylaid by merely attempting to stage a repeat of his heroics in the last season, rather than charting a course that suits him for the different challenges that await him in this.

Looking back while standing still can only lead to a stumble.

"To be honest I'm trying not to think about it too much," he says with reference to his form for Ireland.

"Like last year, when I had set out my goals at the start of the season, it was merely to get on the bench for a Six Nations game.

"But obviously it panned out pretty differently. So you never know how it is going to go, it's a cliché, but it about getting better every time you step on the pitch and just trying to improve. That's the kind of mentality I try to play with."

Three months of inactivity - he pinged his hammer during a pre-season speed session - predominantly spent rehabbing in the gym have allowed him many hours to think about how he plays the game.

Now he just wants to get out on the field and do it.

And with Ulster smarting after the dismal defeat to Munster, there will be no shortage of motivation as he, along with Iain Henderson, passed fit after concussion, and Ireland captain Rory Best return to resource a thin squad.

"Obviously after the weekend, there were a lot of tough words spoken and stuff and the guys, on the whole, have reacted really well to that. The main thought processes were that we want to make a point at home this week."

Coach Dan McFarland is confident his players won't need to be solely motivated by him to atone.

"They do not rely on me to get them up for the game. If they did we are going to run out of steam very quickly.

"It is about getting as many people into the boat who are going to be intrinsically motivated to play hard for Ulster.

"You do not last long in professional sport if you are not intrinsically motivated. If they rely on the couch every week to build them up we are going nowhere.

"They need to have the confidence that they have prepared well and go into a game knowing they are going to play well."

They will play better but matching Connacht won't be as straightforward as a 58-year unbeaten home record against the westerners might indicate.

If anything, Andy Friend's side are strengthened by the return of captain Jarrad Butler and, even if their attack was toothless against Leinster, they eked far more value out of their defeat than Ulster did theirs.

"Both sides will be trying to recover from the six-day turnaround and that is the challenge in these big games," says Friend.

"It is great to have our captain Jarrad back and one or two other guys who were returning from small knocks."

Verdict: Connacht

ULSTER - P Nelson; A Kernohan, A Curtis, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Best (capt), T O'Toole; A O'Connor, I Henderson; M Rea, N Timoney, M Coetzeee. Reps: A McBurney, E O'Sullivan, R Kane, K Treadwell, S Reidy, D Shanahan, J McPhillips, J Hume.

CONNACHT - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, T Farrell, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; U Dillane, Q Roux; S O'Brien, J Butler (capt), P Boyle. Reps: S Delahunt, P McCabe, C Carey, J Cannon, C Fainga'a, C Blade, K Godwin, C Kelleher.

REF - Andrew Brace (IRFU)

  • Ulster v Connacht, Live, eir Sport 1, 7.35

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