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Superb Jacob Stockdale is in seventh heaven after Six Nations triumph

 

By Jonathan Bradley

The season of Jacob Stockdale continued yesterday as the Ulster wing was named as the NatWest Six Nations Player of the Championship, even if the man of the moment voted for another of his winning team-mates.

As Ireland beat England to claim their third ever Grand Slam, there was a piece of personal history for the youngster too as his seventh score of the campaign set a new high-watermark.

And his incredible rise was recognised by this latest award as, after being named on a shortlist collated by media members, he polled 32% of the public vote, beating out his Irish team-mates Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. Keith Earls finished up in fourth, even with Stockdale having given his fellow winger the nod.

Just reward after a history-making campaign, all the more remarkable as the 21-year-old was playing in his first championship.

The Ballynahinch RFC man had made a big impact over the course of his early caps, scoring on debut against the USA and again against the Springboks and Argentina, but few could have predicted his meteoric rise would continue at such a pace into the Six Nations.

Least of all the man himself. Despite all the feats, Stockdale wasn't anticipating receiving yet another accolade.

"It's a bit of a surprise," he admitted after being presented the award in front of his Ulster team-mates by fellow Grand Slam winner Iain Henderson. "I wasn't expecting it, and I certainly wouldn't have been expecting it eight weeks ago if you'd told me.

"For me it was about playing in the Six Nations and, once I did, I wanted to play as well as I could. You always want to improve and that does move the goalposts throughout the campaign.

"Not a lot of guys get to win this award, and I'm especially grateful to do it in my first go.

"It's been a great couple of weeks, but tough too. It's an experience I won't forget. It'll be pretty hard to back it up next year."

There's no time to bask in his achievements though, as Stockdale is straight back into the Ulster side for today's trip to Cardiff (3.15pm kick-off).

While the rest of Ireland's front-liners have been spared an immediate return to action, with Ulster the only province not in European action next weekend, they have a down week ahead and, as such, both Stockdale and Henderson are parachuted straight back.

Their first Ulster games since the loss to Wasps that ended Champions Cup hopes back in late January, the returns could not have come at a much better time.

The side, who have lost Director of Rugby Les Kiss and learnt that Jono Gibbes will follow him out the exit door this summer since the last time Stockdale took to the field in a white jersey, are rapidly approaching win-or-bust territory in their efforts to get back into the Guinness PRO14 play-offs, while their place in next season's Champions Cup is anything but a given.

Stockdale says there was little chance of him seeking an opportunity of more rest.

"It's been good to get back in and have a bit of craic with the guys that I've known a long time. We're training with a good intensity and that makes it exciting to come back in.

"It's different coming in from a team that's just won a championship into one that's fighting to stay in the play-off positions.

"But nonetheless, it's still goals there, we want to do as best we can over the next five games. It's tough but, the way we're training, everyone is up for it.

"To be honest, the hardest part is just trying to remember all the Ulster calls again. The Ireland calls are just battered into your head so much over the last couple of months that it is hard to switch back.

"But I don't need any motivation to play for Ulster. It's where I grew up.

"It's the team I have always watched and I played for Ulster before I played for Ireland so I don't think I'll have a problem in terms of motivation."

Despite his exploits in the green jersey, Stockdale will still be savouring every chance he gets, be it for Ireland or Ulster.

"As soon as you do one goal, the goal changes - you want to do something else," he said. "For me it's about getting better and better every time I go out on the pitch, which means that I don't have any bother getting motivated for my next game.

"It was something that the older guys had said to me, particularly Rob and Rory. They said: 'You don't realise how rare these (Grand Slams) come about. Just because you have won one in your first attempt, don't take it for granted - really try and appreciate it. Celebrate it and enjoy every single aspect of it.'

"So I tried to do that as best I could. We knew we had an opportunity to do something special - something that hadn't been done too many times before.

"The message was that we really needed a big performance to be able to make history, and that was definitely hammered home to us.

"I have always been very goal driven. I'm lucky that playing in the Six Nations came earlier than expected."

Bradley's Verdict: Ulster

The return of Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale gives Ulster a real boost while Cardiff themselves are missing some key figures. Danny Wilson's side will be looking to produce a big performance in their final home game, and keep the pressure on the Cheetahs above them, but Ulster may just have enough to upset the form-book.

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