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Stockdale closes in on Ireland call but his eyes are still on Ulster

 

By Jonathan Bradley

It seems everyone wants to talk about Jacob Stockdale's Ireland prospects apart from the man himself.

Yet another try against Wasps in Friday night's Champions Cup win brought his tally for the season to five scores in five games and, to take it back further, a 13th of 2017.

It's a run of form that already has him firmly ensconced in the number 11 jersey at Kingspan Stadium - he was again ahead of both Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and their 144 caps worth of Test experience on Friday - and has already sparked plenty of speculation that he could occupy the same jersey for the national side when the Springboks visit on November 11.

Though he won his first two caps this summer in a side deprived of Joe Schmidt's Lions and a smattering of other senior pros, the South Africans in the Aviva Stadium would be a different proposition entirely.

But, while he found facing Japan and the USA hugely beneficial from a development point of view, he is not counting any chickens when it comes to his involvement next month.

"It was massive," he said of his summer. "It was good to be in an atmosphere that was above Ulster and to be able to learn from fantastic players is really exciting, to play an international game was a dream come true.

"We'll see how the next couple of weeks go. I'm hopeful, but I just have to keep performing and working hard with Ulster."

For now, that means this weekend's trip to La Rochelle and a meeting with the other Pool One side to taste victory on the opening weekend of Champions Cup action.

The competition's only debutants this season began their own campaign with a bonus-point win over Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop on Saturday, leaving them as the pool's early pace-setters.

A surprise package in the Top14 last season, they led the league ladder at season's end before falling to Toulon in the semi-finals, the title eventually going to the Clermont side then coached by Ulster's Jono Gibbes.

With the likes of Victor Vito, Uini Atonio and Geoffrey Doumayrou at the head of the charge, they have already accounted for Clermont and Racing 92 at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre this year.

Indeed, since the beginning of last term only Gloucester in last season's Challenge Cup semi-final have returned from France's Atlantic Coast with a win.

Perhaps with the fearlessness of youth on his side, Stockdale is looking forward to the challenge after what he called his first real taste of European action against Wasps.

In a game the English visitors led 9-3, it was Stockdale's try that got the hosts back into the contest, while his scoring pass for Stuart McCloskey helped them into a lead they would hold until the final whistle.

Former All Black Charles Piutau was centrally involved in both, one week after he and Stockdale combined to devastating effect for a score against Connacht.

"I'm really enjoying it," enthused Stockdale of a huge month in Ulster's campaign. "That was my first real taste of European rugby. I'm loving every minute of it.

"It makes it easier when the boys around you are playing really well, there is a great team ethos in the squad now.

"To be honest, most of the time I just kind of run off Charles and expect him to make a break, he has that ability to create something out of nothing. It's just a matter of being on his shoulder.

"I wasn't looking for the ball (for the second try) but it came my way so I gave it a go. I was just trying to keep the ball in play and luckily Stu is 6ft 4 so he got above everybody else and finished it really well."

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