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'It is a frustration': Jacob Stockdale addresses unfamiliar scoring drought as Ulster prepare to face Harlequins

 

On run: Jacob Stockdale makes ground against Clermont
On run: Jacob Stockdale makes ground against Clermont
Jacob Stockdale waving the flag for Ulster after the victory over Bath
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

For a while, it seemed like those 'Stock is rising' puns were just going to keep coming and coming.

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The rapid ascent of Jacob Stockdale from the Wallace High reserves to what team-mate Luke Marshall recently reflected was a vein of form that had him in the conversation for the title of the world's best winger had felt the stuff of fairytale.

The ball and his hands seemed to have some sort of magnetic attraction and scoring records duly tumbled over the course of his first two years as a professional.

Ringland, Crossan, Geoghegan, Trimble - it seemed every time he pulled on the green jersey he'd surpass another legend on the try-scoring charts.

All the while he knew that even for a winger as prolific and talented as him, such a strike rate was unsustainable over the course of a career, that in high performance sport no charting of success is an unbroken upward curve.

Now he finds himself in the middle of the inevitable lull, his last 15 games for club and country yielding just two of those scores that once seemed to arrive on cue, both coming in the World Cup warm-up against Wales last August.

In the middle of the run came the unfortunate gaffe of a fumbled would-be try in the quarter-final of the Champions Cup, a drop that means his last Ulster try is still his second against Racing last January.

That mistake came in the very same corner of the Aviva Stadium where he'd made history with a never-to-be-forgotten score to beat the All Blacks just five months prior, the geography alone a stark reminder of the highs and lows thrown up by the sport.

"I said this in a couple of interviews when everything was going my way, and I don't think too many people believed I actually thought this, but I knew there were going to be times where the ball wouldn't kick my direction or the pass wouldn't go to hand, things like that," he reflected ahead of taking on Harlequins this afternoon in a key Champions Cup clash (3.15pm kick-off).

"That's the nature of rugby, that's the nature of sport. Things aren't always going to be going your way, but it's about controlling the controllables and for me it's about doing everything I can well.

"For instance, the Clermont game last week, I felt that every involvement I had in the game was a good involvement, I just didn't have that many of them.

"How many involvements you have isn't something you can control, but the quality of those involvements is something you can control."

His try-less World Cup in Japan certainly strengthened that notion. In a string of stunted team performances, neither he nor Keith Earls on the opposing wing were afforded many opportunities. And while the quarter-final was one to forget, Stockdale felt it was an important step to still be making contributions elsewhere like his memorable man and ball tackle on Stuart Hogg against Scotland.

"It's something I experienced in the World Cup for the first time," he noted. "I wasn't necessarily playing badly, I just wasn't getting the involvements that I wanted.

"There's obviously, to a certain extent, a frustration because when you're playing outside, particularly in the World Cup, a team that aren't attacking that fluidly, it is frustrating as a winger. At the same time, there's a lot more that I could be doing to go looking for the ball and looking for involvements, and that's something I need to grow into my game a bit more, and it's definitely something I'm working on.

"But yeah, it is a frustration because I do back myself as a decent attacker and I want the ball in my hands as much as I can, so hopefully I can get those opportunities over the next few weeks. At the same time, there's a lot I can do outside of having the ball in my hands to help the team."

Never was that idea more apparent than in the European opener against Bath some three weeks ago. Sitting two from two and top of Pool Three today but with a points differential of just plus six, it's clear how fine the margins have been. Indeed, had it not been for Stockdale's last-second intervention when jumping the passing lane between Zach Mercer and Semesa Rokoduguni, Ulster's now-promising campaign would have almost hit the skids before it really began. When the tries aren't flowing, it's exactly the kind of moment that can still turn a game in his side's favour.

"I don't think that won us the game or anything, I thought as a team we played quite well in that Bath game, but that was just a nice way to finish it off," said Stockdale, who has been switched to full-back this afternoon. "It is definitely something that I'm learning, that I don't have to be scoring tries to be having an impact on the game.

"Obviously it's nice to score tries and it's good fun, but being good in the air or being good defensively or doing the behind the scenes work, those are the kind of things that can make a massive difference."

Today and the second leg of this back-to-back in London next Friday have a defining feel. Just as Ulster managed with a pair of wins over the Scarlets last year, two victories would have a transformative effect on quarter-final hopes.

"European group games are (always) pretty much knockout games anyway," said Stockdale of the significance of the six-day spell. "If you want to have a home quarter-final you have to win every game, to just qualify you need to win five out of six and I think that is something we are acutely aware of. When you win your first two games it puts you in the driver's seat, but at the same time it is two out of six done and four left to go.

"It's like at Six Nations time, if you are in control of your group (in the final fixtures) that is a massive bonus to have and hopefully we do that.

"Obviously there are a lot of difficult games leading into that and we just have to take every game - as cliché as it sounds - as it comes. You can't get ahead of yourself and just keep working."

Keep doing that and the tries surely won't be long in coming either.

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