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The Ulster boys keep me well grounded, says Ireland's new star Jacob Stockdale

 

By Jonathan Bradley

With Ulster making use of the indoor facilities at UUJ this week, Jacob Stockdale was handed a reminder of just how far removed he is from the average 21-year-old.

Stockdale himself once walked these same halls as a student, starting his criminology degree at the university before having to find a method of study that better suited the demands placed on him by his burgeoning rugby career.

On Tuesday though, as contemporaries who once could have been classmates milled around ahead of their final lectures before Christmas, Stockdale was working through a lengthy list of interview requests reflective of his new status in Irish rugby.

Having already been in flying form for Ulster for well over 12 months, the Newtownstewart man's face was unavoidable throughout November as he built on a try-scoring international debut last summer with a starring role as Joe Schmidt's men beat both Argentina and the Springboks.

After another score on his return to Ulster colours against Harlequins in the Champions Cup last weekend, the winger has started 19 games since the beginning of 2016/17 and grabbed 18 tries.

With his head coach Jono Gibbes joking that his most recent effort was all the work of the forwards, Stockdale says the environment at Ulster has a habit of keeping him grounded.

"I think it'd be easy to get caught up in how good you're playing but one bad game can turn that round and you'll have people saying 'aww, maybe he isn't as good as we thought he was'.

"You have to take everything with a pinch of salt.

"It's only good performances that can create a bit of a buzz, it's just working hard to get those performances," he said.

"I think the guys here make it easy, they keep you firmly grounded.

"It's easy when you're going back into Ulster, and having to work hard, you don't have time to think too much about people saying how good you are."

As he makes his way from interview to interview, Stockdale wears an Ulster Academy training top and while it is not his own - he lives with Academy men Adam McBurney, Marcus Rea and Jack Regan and says claiming kit is a bit of a "smash and grab" - it's another allusion to how far he has progressed so quickly.

Just over three years out of school, most players would still be toiling away in Academies dreaming of making a mark in the professional game. Stockdale though is in possession of Ireland's number 11 jersey and seen as the man on whose shoulders rest Ulster's hopes for the season.

Having had to watch from the distance of the national side's Carton House base as his province went through an undefeated, but unconvincing, November, he admits there is an adjustment in returning.

"It was a challenge for me," he noted. "I was coming in and thinking 'I'm coming in and I'm going to sort everybody out, I'll sort this out, sort that out'. But you kind of have to take a step back and let people work on their own game, allow people to do that.

"That's what brings the performances and we saw that against Harlequins.

"That being said, you have to drive standards and everybody has to expect the best of themselves. If somebody isn't giving that, then you go in on them. It's probably not my place to be doing it.

"But I feel very comfortable with all the guys and if I try to drive standards and stuff, I don't think they'd be going 'what's this 21-year-old doing, he's only just here?'

"But at the same time there's guys here who have been playing for Ireland for a long, long time - Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble - you have to respect that."

Speaking of respect, Stockdale has learnt enough in his short career to know that, even against a side with nothing to play for, providing any material in interviews that could be proverbially pinned to a dressing room wall is the cardinal sin of media duties.

As such, ahead of tonight's visit from a Harlequins side who, having lost three from three in Champions Cup Pool 1, would surely rather be focusing on their rather more important Premiership clash with Newcastle Falcons next weekend, Stockdale makes sure to stress the opposition will be looking to avenge their defeat in last week's reverse fixture.

"They're out of Europe but won't by any means come over here and roll over and give us an easy win," he said.

"They're an incredibly spirited club and an incredibly skilled club, so it's going to be a tough game.

"It's European Cup week and they never come easy, so we're expecting a real hard fight."

Verdict

While Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes will have been focused on making sure their players don't take their eye off the ball tonight, there will be an unmistakable feeling that the hard part of this particular job is done. The Quins side is weaker than that faced last week and Ulster have all the motivation.

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