I'm focused on helping Ulster sting Wasps despite Ireland talk: Stockdale
Having notched four tries in four games so far this season, Jacob Stockdale is ready to continue his breakout year on the European stage as Ulster prepare to welcome Wasps to Belfast this weekend.
The 21-year-old, who was capped by Ireland on their summer tour to USA and Japan, was once again his side’s match-winner against Connacht on Friday night, his sublime combination with Charles Piutau providing the real moment of memorable attacking quality in a typically gritty interpro.
Twelve months ago, Stockdale wasn’t even involved in the opening rounds of Ulster’s Champions Cup campaign, and indeed made only two cameos from the bench in the whole competition.
But now, as the BT Sport cameras descend on Kingspan Stadium for Friday night’s Pool 1 curtain-raiser, he will be seen by the English visitors as the team’s primary threat.
On his prolific strike rate, which now stands at 12 tries in 18 games for club and country during 2017, the former Wallace High stand-out remains modest.
“I think the ball just keeps coming my way,” he chuckled after his score, as well as the boot of John Cooney, secured the 16-8 win over Kieran Keane’s struggling Connacht.
“The advantage of having an All Black beside you is that he’s always going to be in support when you try to make the break. I saw the hole and went for it and Charles was there to give me a hand and put me in.”
While his all-round performance against the westerners — having scored one try he was fingertips away from creating two more — set tongues wagging about his possible involvement in Ireland’s autumn schedule, Stockdale’s gaze has not strayed beyond what is a huge month for his province.
“We’ve got the two massive European games up next and then Leinster after that, so my focus is very firmly on Ulster right now and trying to play as best as I can for them,” he said.
“There’s no better test to see if we’re ready or not than an interpro and there’s probably a few areas we can, and we need to, step it up (after last week).
“That being said, we showed an awful lot of grit and determination, especially in the last three minutes to not let them score a try, and we’re going to bring that into Wasps.
“Wasps are a different animal, a very difficult team, but we feel we have the beating of them.”
The English side reached the final of the Aviva Premiership last season, where they were beaten by an Exeter team containing Ulstermen Gareth Steenson and Ian Whitten, but things are not going to plan at present.
Having lost four games in a row after yesterday’s reverse at the hands of Saracens, the Coventry outfit are battling a short-turnaround and a lengthy injury list as they look to arrest their alarming run of form.
Piutau, who spent the 2015/16 season at the Ricoh Arena, is still expecting a real challenge against his former side.
“It’ll be a step up and it’s always exciting to come into Champions Cup, especially first up against Wasps,” said the man who will not play in the competition next season thanks to his impending big-money move to Bristol.
“There’ll be a lot of familiar faces so I’ll be looking to take any opportunity with both hands.
“We’ll build into it this week and hopefully be good to go come game day.” If there is one area that Piutau feels will need to be improved from the win over Connacht, it is his side’s ball retention.
Les Kiss’s men actually came in at half-time trailing after the two sides enjoyed vastly different fortunes in the opposing ‘22’.
While Ulster held much of the ball during the first 40, in a repeat of a problem that afflicted them against Zebre a week prior, turnovers saw a number of good opportunities go begging.
Connacht, in contrast, had relatively few moments of concerted pressure, but took a rare chance when Tom McCartney crashed over for what was then a 5-3 lead.
“It wasn’t pretty but we showed a lot of heart and desire,” added Piutau.
“They put us under pressure and we were our own worst enemy at times. Just trying to throw a few too many passes.We’ll learn from that
“We needed to hold the ball, go through one more phase. We were trying to score off every phase, pushing things and losing the ball.
“We looked good when he held it and built momentum.”