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How Ulster's rising star Stockdale kept his nerve to join elite Ireland try-scoring young guns

By Jonathan Bradley

With the tries flowing in Ireland's latest big win over Italy, Ulster's Jacob Stockdale admitted he was starting to get a little anxious before getting his name on the scoresheet in Dublin.

The hosts crossed the whitewash eight times in all during the 56-19 win at the Aviva stadium on Saturday, but had gone over six times before the free-scoring winger got in on the act, ultimately scoring twice to take his Test tally to six scores in six games.

Joining the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Robbie Henshaw in scoring for Ireland in the Six Nations before his 22nd birthday, his was a performance sure to quieten the wholly premature social media debate over whether his place in the team was under threat.

When the tries came, they showed off the attributes that have marked the former Wallace High pupil, from Lurgan, as one of Irish Rugby's rising stars.

His first came on the hour mark, courtesy of a smart running line that has always seemed reminiscent of vintage Tommy Bowe, while his second was more physical.

Tuned in to go for the intercept, his speed of thought was matched by fleetness of foot as he sprinted for the line from inside his own half and had the strength to shrug off the tackle intended to empty him across the sideline.

Apart from the scores, the Ballynahinch RFC man displayed less heralded traits likely to endear him to Ireland coach Joe Schmidt such as a strong kick-chase and willingness for the less flash carries too.

While he surely would have been happy to play his part in any Ireland win, Stockdale admitted afterwards he had been itching to add to his international tally throughout.

"To a certain extent I was a bit frustrated I didn't get to score earlier on but there were things that did go right for me," he said. "I felt like I was having a good game, I was having a lot of involvements and I was happy with that.

"You just have to take you opportunities when they come to you and I felt I did that a lot better in the second half than the first.

"I just feel like the ball is popping up in the right place for me at the moment and that was pretty exciting for me."

Despite that desire for scores, Stockdale added that he hadn't realised fellow winger Keith Earls was on his shoulder when he opted to go himself to finish that second score, a 70 metre race up the touchline after he read the pass of Tommaso Castello and stepped outside Jayden Hayward.

"If I'm honest I didn't release he was there until I saw the replay," he said. "I was just trying to gun hard enough down the line. He said he was happy enough for me to take it anyway because he was knackered."

If any were needed, the brace provided a measure of vindication after his place was questioned in some corners following Teddy Thomas try in Paris a week prior.

While there were plenty of mistakes prior in the build-up, some still pointed the finger of blame at Stockdale after the Racing 92 man had been allowed to round his opposing wing.

"To be honest I try not to read or think about those things too much," he said. "I just try to do the same things every week and prepare for the game as best as I can and hopefully the performance comes together.

"It's a big confidence booster. The only way that you get better at playing international rugby is by playing international rugby, so for (Schmidt) to put that faith in me has been really great.

"I'd say the biggest learning has been how tough it is. The last ten minutes, my lungs were really starting to go.

"You don't understand how difficult it is until you've played in it, and that's something I've learned. You learn things with every game you play, and there will be things that I take away from this I have to work on."

Stockdale, like everyone connected to Irish Rugby, knows that the visit of Wales on Saturday week will be a different kettle of fish entirely.

Having beaten Scotland and lost narrowly, and controversially, to England, Warren Gatland's men still harbour championship hopes and their injury problems will likely have eased by that fixture with the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Liam Williams all back pushing for a place.

"Wales had a really good performance against Scotland and it will be a really tough challenge," Stockdale added, while sounding a note of caution.

"For now, we have got two weeks to get ready and we should be well prepared.

"I think it is just getting that 80 minute performance together and making sure we don't tap out for a single phase of that game because Italy punished us when we did and Wales will punish us even more."

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