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Why I think the future is exciting for Ireland and Ulster, explains Jacob Stockdale

 

By Jonathan Bradley

For all he's achieved in the past 12 months, Jacob Stockdale isn't quite ready for 2017/18 to end just yet.

This time last year, the 22-year-old had put together an impressive full campaign in the Ulster side but remained uncapped at international level, and was looking forward to making his debut on the upcoming tour to USA and Japan.

He did just that, scoring out in New Jersey in his first time wearing a green jersey and hasn't looked back since. Three tries in two Autumn Internationals followed before a record breaking Six Nations saw him set a new record with seven scores, becoming a Grand Slam winner in the process.

"It's been a crazy 12 months," admitted the still modest winger. "I'm incredibly grateful about all that's happened and excited about what's next."

For the Wallace High alumnus that means a trip to Australia for Ireland's three Test series against the Wallabies that begins on Saturday week in Brisbane.

Ireland's record Down Under is dismal - they've won only three of their 13 Tests in Australia and none since 1979.

This, though, is a different Ireland. Grand Slam champions and winners of 12 in a row for the first time ever, only the back-to-back World champion All Blacks are ahead of them in the world rankings.

As such, anything other than a series victory, just their second ever against one of the supposed Southern Hemisphere super-powers, will be considered something of a failure.

"There's no doubt that Ireland is in the best position it's been in for some time," said Stockdale. "We want to go down and put in three good performances and win the series. Joe (Schmidt) has built a good squad that's able to do that."

Stockdale, though, is not buying into Australia painting themselves as underdogs. Head coach Michael Cheika has been quick to build up his visitors in recent weeks.

"It's going to be tough," he said in Sydney last week. "But we're looking forward to putting ourselves up against a contrasting style of play. They are obviously very well coached, they've got a clear and coherent plan they want to deliver and they deliver that plan every week.

"That's what's got them to number two in the world and it's a place that we'll be looking to cut them down from when they come over here."

While the Wallabies have lost their last two, the concluding fixtures of their end-of-year tour against England and Scotland, they have beaten the All Blacks, Wales, Argentina and twice drawn with the Springboks over the past 12 months.

While not the same outfit who reached a World Cup final in 2015, Stockdale knows the side that await them next week are no pushovers.

"They've got a massive home advantage," he said. "The first Test is already sold out and that just shows you the intent that their fans have.

"They're not a weak team by any stretch of the imagination. They're going to come out all guns blazing and hopefully we can deal with that."

Ahead of last week's squad announcement, there had been some debate over whether Schmidt would consider leaving some of his frontline stars behind for a summer of rest.

With his Leinster contingent, in particular Johnny Sexton, having just completed lengthy seasons that involved runs to both the Champions Cup and Guinness PRO14 finals, there was a case for putting the feet up ahead of a pre-season that will build all the way into the 2019 World Cup, but instead it will be the strongest possible squad that leaves these shores.

Even those who finished the season carrying knocks, such as Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw, will be on the plane as Schmidt brings a panel likely as close as possible to the one he has in mind for next year's ultimate goal in Japan.

"I don't think you can read too much into what Joe does or the decisions he makes, but you know that they usually turn out to be the right ones," said Stockdale. "We want to win the Test series. I think he's picked a team that can do that.

"For me, it's nice to get picked and now I'm excited to see what Australia is like. On the plus side, we're probably getting the heat training out of the way now."

Stockdale, and the rest of the five-strong Ulster contingent, can travel safe in the knowledge that they'll still be playing top tier European rugby next season. That prospect seemed somewhat remote as winter turned to spring but under the now departed Jono Gibbes the side went undefeated over their last five games, including beating Ospreys at home in the Champions Cup play-off.

After what was a difficult campaign, Stockdale believes the travails united the squad.

"I think as a team, as a squad, over the latter stages of the season we really came together and dug in," he said.

"Rugby, as good as things are when they're going your way, it's much tougher when they're not.

"This season taught me, and it taught the rest of the squad, some lessons and that's going to stand us in good stead."

While this week Jared Payne was confirmed on a list of Ulster absentees that also includes Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Paul Marshall, Robbie Diack, Charles Piutau and Callum Black, Stockdale believes in the young squad.

"We're in an exciting place," he added.

"You look at the young guys coming through, they are the spine of a really good team in the next few years, it's just about bringing them through and developing them."

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