Thursday 21 February 2019

Ulster's winged wonders 'sprinkle stardust' on win

Ulster 26 Racing 92 22

Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale leaves Simon Zebo trailing on his way to scoring his side’s second try at the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale leaves Simon Zebo trailing on his way to scoring his side’s second try at the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

There was a time when Simon Zebo knew what it was like to have Jacob Stockdale breathing down his neck.

Jacob's ladder eyed a swift ascent: to break into the Irish Six Nations side at 23; however, the Munster man's inimitable desire to spread his winger's wings and move to Paris accelerated the plan.

Rory Best sporting the scars of battle. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Rory Best sporting the scars of battle. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

So, at just 21, he won a Grand Slam and smashed an age-old championship record. His future was now.

Stockdale's stockpiling of tries continued apace on Saturday, with another double ensuring he has scored in every round of Europe: six in five games.

There's a great shot of his opening try in Ravenhill, with Zebo standing forlorn in the background, but the proverbial torch had been long passed on before now.

Some may still pine for the thrill of Zebo being big in Japan, but once he boarded the ferry at Cork harbour, that ship sailed.

Brice Dulin of Racing 92 is tackled by Ross Kane, left, and Andy Warwick of Ulster. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Brice Dulin of Racing 92 is tackled by Ross Kane, left, and Andy Warwick of Ulster. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Marauding

And so it is Stockdale who will continue to terrorise the world's greatest defences. On Saturday, neither Zebo nor his half-time replacement, nor any of his flummoxed colleagues, could cope with the marauding man of the match.

Zebo, hampered by a dead leg all week in training, perhaps should not have played here, but he wanted to. He did score a try of his own, but it was a difficult afternoon for the erstwhile Irish international favourite.

His try-scoring gesture to young Mike Lowry in Paris hadn't been forgotten in these parts and Zebo was cat-called nearly ever time he got the ball.

Much of it appeared to be the usual pantomimic pillorying and any vague implication that it may have been otherwise will hopefully achieve clarification.

Brice Dulin of Racing 92 is tackled by Stuart McCloskey and Rory Best of Ulster. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Brice Dulin of Racing 92 is tackled by Stuart McCloskey and Rory Best of Ulster. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Ulster's audience had enough to shout about in support of their side rather than wasting time on the opposition.

If Stockdale's breathtaking brace wasn't enough, the frightening emerging talent of the European debutant on the opposite wing, Robert Baloucoune, was sufficiently sublime to make the punters pout for more.

While Stockdale might have stolen the show, his even younger Enniskillen sidekick delivered a raucous opening number with a try after just seven minutes, burning the French cover with a weaving run from in to out.

Another star is born, indeed. Takes one to know one.

Robert Baloucoune of Ulster is tackled by Teddy Iribaren of Racing 92. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Robert Baloucoune of Ulster is tackled by Teddy Iribaren of Racing 92. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

"Rob is an incredible athlete," enthuses Stockdale.

"He has been pushing us a lot in training and he has been training really well.

"For him to get an opportunity like that is massive and they are the games you want to be playing in and he took it really well.

"He scored a brilliant try and it was a proper finisher's try.

"He's got a lot of pace, but I thought his all-round game was pretty good tonight.

"It's good to have another guy in there that's doing really well. He's a lot quicker than me, without a doubt."

Dan McFarland could have couched a semblance of conservatism by re-jigging his back-line in preference for experience, but his faith in youth was ultimately justified.

"That's probably been a trademark of Dan this season," adds the 'senior' wing of the man nicknamed 'The Cat' by his former Academy boss Willie Anderson. A cheetah, we presume.

"He does give the younger guys the opportunities and, as a younger player in the squad, that's exactly what you want. It's fantastic for Rob. It's working really well at the moment."

It worked well from the off.

"He was brilliant and the execution of everybody involved in his try, plus the construction of it with the attack leaders and Dwayne Peel at the beginning of the week," noted McFarland.

"You know it was an area when we sat down and analysed them the week before, we thought we could hit them in the middle if we had quick ball and if we flashed it to the edge.

"For Dwayne, that is very satisfying and so it should be, as it was really well thought out and really well executed.

"Robert is so laid-back, the one thing you have to be careful about is not giving him any tension. You just say go out there and we want to see you with the ball in your hands.

"I actually said that at half-time, goodness me, look at the wingers we have got. Let's make sure we get the ball to the edge because at half-time we felt we did not get the ball to the edge enough and you see what we can do when we do get the ball there.

"We are actually pretty blessed with some pretty good wingers. So Robert did a really good job against guys likes Zebo and Juan Imhoff on the wings. And Jacob sprinkles stardust. I wouldn't swap any of them."

Two tries from either side left Ulster 16-10 ahead at the break and they twice led by two scores; Stockdale's second-half effort was almost a replica of that which downed the All Blacks.

Cheeky

A lineout replaced the scrum and Will Addison impersonated Bundee Aki, but the switch, the pass and the cheeky chip and charge - this time evading three defenders - were franked by Stockdale's incredible finishing ability.

While Racing nabbed a bonus-point try and had a fifth ruled out for a forward pass in the ceaseless, error-strewn 80-minute humdinger, Addison's late penalty secured the win - just.

With John Cooney withdrawing from the warm-up, Addison assumed kicking duties late in the piece, but he misjudged his time allowance and there were still six seconds to play once he had booted Ulster to 26-22.

To everyone's relief he nabbed the restart to ensure there was no late heartache as the rangy Parisiens pushed for what would have been a smash-and-grab success.

Now Ulster must finish the job in Leicester next week, unlike last year, when they followed a similar win with a pratfall in the English midlands.

Ulster - L Ludik; R Baloucoune, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns (M Lowry 64), J Cooney; E O'Sullivan (A Warwick 64), R Best capt (R Herring 64), M Moore (R Kane 64); A O'Connor (I Nagle 64), K Treadwell; S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee

Racing 92 - B Dulin; S Zebo (O Klemenczak HT), V Vakatawa, H Chavancy, J Imhoff; F Russell (B Volavola 64), M Machenaud (T Ibaren 62 (Machenaud 80)); G Gogichashvili (V Kakovin 63), D Szarzewski capt (T Baubigny 70), B Tameifuna (G Henri Colombe 55), B Le Roux, L Nakarawa, W Lauret (F Sanconnie 71), B Chouzenoux (B Palu 64), A Claassen

Ref - M Carley (Eng) (Rep - A Jackson HT)

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