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Stockdale ticks every box for Ireland, says Earls


By Jonathan Bradley

Having only celebrated his 30th birthday a month ago, Keith Earls should hardly be considered one of Irish rugby's elder statesmen, but the experienced Munsterman has certainly found himself impressed by one of the camp's young guns of late.

Ulster's Jacob Stockdale is preparing for his second taste of Test rugby at Carton House this week, hoping to add to the two caps he won on the summer tour to USA and Japan as South Africa, Fiji and Argentina visit the Aviva Stadium on successive weekends.

With no Simon Zebo in the squad thanks to his impending move to France, and neither Andrew Trimble nor Tommy Bowe selected, back-three berths for the series opener against the Springboks on Saturday appear wide open - and the precocious Ulster flyer has already caught Earls' eye.

"He's a phenomenal talent," said the fellow wing who can himself boast a prolific Test record of 26 tries in 54 starts.

"From the moment I saw him and trained with him, I knew he had something special. He's been playing unbelievably for Ulster this year.

"He's massive, he's fast, he's an incredible finisher and he's so strong. He ticks all the boxes.

"He'll make mistakes as he gets older, and it will start getting difficult when teams start figuring him out and what he's about, but in my eyes right now, he ticks every box."

Even at only 21, should Stockdale make the number 11 jersey his own over the coming weeks, he doesn't figure to be the least experienced international in Joe Schmidt's plans.

That honour will likely go to Bundee Aki, Connacht's Kiwi centre who qualifies for a first time on residency this Autumn.

One of the key cogs in the westerners' unlikely Pro12 title triumph in 2016, the 27-year-old could reprise his centre partnership with Robbie Henshaw from that fairytale season, although Ulster's Stuart McCloskey may also be in with a shout of adding to the solitary cap he won against England that year.

Earls, who played in the centre for Ireland as recently as the 2015 World Cup before establishing himself as a stalwart of Schmidt's back-three, believes Aki has settled in well to the new environment.

"He's great," confirmed the Moyross man. "He's keeping the head down and he's putting in a lot of hard work. Obviously, there is going to be a lot of things said and all that. He's putting in so much work.

"He's always on the computers. He's doing everything he can to get up to speed and it's great having him around."

New to the environment, the usually ebullient Aki hasn't quite taken over Zebo's role as the camp's entertainer-in-chief, but Earls is sure the man who has made Galway home will only become more comfortable as time progresses.

"He's just been himself, which is great. There's no dancing or anything out of him yet.

"He's playing the music in the gym, you know. The lads in general are trying to make him feel comfortable like they would with any new lad.

"That's what we try and do, we'll try and (joke with) him a bit, but then if you're not being slagged you know you're in trouble.

"It is something you do during the week at training if you haven't played with a fella or trained with a fella, you grab him for a cup of coffee or you sit down and you chat and you let him know what way you like to talk on the field.

"You find out what kind of talk he likes to hear and then you just get the feel of it at training. So it is all done the same really, regarding who is inside you and their skill set.

"Everyone's just delighted to be here and there are lads who aren't here who have injuries as well, so there's a still a handful of lads that could be here and it's just on form, the way fellas are now.

"There's a good buzz around the place, everyone is playing well and deserves to be here.

"We're all on the one mission now, to try to get the win over South Africa and hopefully get the three wins in November."

Lofty ambitions for sure, but Ireland come into this November ranked higher than all three opponents and knowing that they are kicking things off against a South Africa side who are not the fearsome Springboks of old.

A first meeting between the pair since the summer of 2016, Earls is one who believes that, despite a first ever win on South African soil during that tour, the side blew the chance for series success.

"We have gone back looking at those videos and we were so close to winning a series down there and a lot of it was around our own mistakes that we have, hopefully, learnt from," he admitted.

"South Africa went through a poor patch there for a while but they seem to have found themselves again and they're on the up. They're going to be extremely dangerous and I think they'll be better than 2016."

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