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Jacob Stockdale can be the difference maker in Ireland's World Cup bid, insists McFarland


Jacob Stockdale
Jacob Stockdale
Listen up: Ulster’s Rob Herring and head coach Dan McFarland at the launch of the Guinness PRO14

By Michael Sadlier

Even though the gathering was about launching the Guinness PRO14, there was no possible way that events in Japan were going to be overlooked.

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All four Irish provinces were represented at the Aviva Stadium yesterday ahead of next weekend's opening round of PRO14 games and yet, unsurprisingly, the impending World Cup took centre stage.

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland knew that his previous role as Scotland assistant coach would mean queries regarding any insight he might have over Ireland's World Cup opener on Sunday and, in fairness, took it in his stride.

But first, he was not to be found wanting when asked about the input he expects to see from the two Ulster players who will be heading back to Kingspan Stadium once Ireland need to book their return flight.

McFarland was effusive in backing Jacob Stockdale as, providing he stays fit, a key player for Ireland.

And after Stockdale's fairly indifferent effort at Twickenham in Ireland's first warm-up game, the Ulster head coach reckoned that his player simply oozed class in Cardiff, not only by scoring twice but with his overall game as well.

"In his last (warm-up) game with Ireland, I thought he was exceptional," said McFarland.

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"And you could see it in him," he added of what was just 40 minutes on the Principality Stadium surface.

"He wasn't happy with Twickenham and he backed it up with that (in Cardiff) and showed something special.

"Jacob deals with pressure well and I think he's a class player and a real difference maker.

"Whether it's Scotland (on Sunday), or in a (World Cup) quarter-final, you need someone who can do things a little bit differently, and he can do that."

Iain Henderson also wasn't left out in terms of his importance to Ireland and Ulster, the latter where he is now club captain with Rory Best's time at the province at an end.

"He's (Henderson) a really good player and, along with James Ryan, Ireland have two really excellent players," McFarland maintained.

"There is a little bit of pressure as the line-out hasn't been the best thing, but I back them to solve those issues."

Ulster could yet, of course, have more players called out to Japan, with Will Addison, Rob Herring, Jordi Murphy and Jack McGrath being the ones most likely to be top of Joe Schmidt's stand-by list.

Last Saturday, Addison had to sit out Ulster's last warm-up game in Glasgow as a precaution in case Robbie Henshaw dropped out but, ultimately, there was no need for a long-haul flight.

Having players potentially having to drop everything to fly to the Far East is hardly an ideal situation for Ulster's PRO14 campaign, which opens on Friday of next week when they host the Ospreys before heading off to South Africa for two games, but McFarland batted such considerations aside.

"They've (those facing possible Ireland call-ups) got to focus where their feet are but they are also professional players," he said.

"They know they've got to be playing well to get the call.

"But when they're with 14 of their (Ulster) mates on the pitch the idea of not being focused is anathema to them."

And what of Sunday's Pool A opener in Yokohama?

"Ireland have got to go into the game as favourites," stated McFarland who, prior to his stint in Scotland, where he also assisted Gregor Townsend at Glasgow, played and then coached at Connacht.

"But you just never know, the weather might have a play on it."

Rain, and lots of it, has been forecast for Sunday in Yokohama.

"That (rain) would be really disappointing," added McFarland in terms of spoiling the spectacle of what looks like the key game regarding topping the group.

"Scotland do have a really good kicking game and territorially they can take advantage of poor weather when you don't necessarily want the ball.

"But Joe's premium on possession means in the wet weather that's when you really need to keep the ball."

So, structure and, seemingly, Ireland's superior approach in this area could well be decisive.

"If the game is loose, then Scotland are so dangerous, but Ireland know that, and my guess is will look to squeeze them at set-piece," said McFarland.

"Scotland's set-piece has improved, if they can hold of them there and get a bit of counter-attack, maybe they can..."

With that done, the actual PRO14 now gets some time and Ulster's hope of utilising having most of their personnel to make a strong start as they begin in a new conference with both Leinster and Glasgow for company.

"We're going to be focused on a good start, but it's a long season and all sorts of things can happen," said McFarland, who has three from five games over the World Cup period at home.

"The key objective for us is to perform consistently over the season to put us in position where we can challenge for championships."

One area which is receiving immediate attention is at tight-head prop where an injury to Marty Moore means that Ulster are now looking at making a short-term signing as cover.

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