Dou­ble try hero Stock­dale is keen to prove Ul­ster can be a real knock­out

Belfast Telegraph - - SPORT - Jonathan Bradley

UL­STER: L Ludik; R Baloucoune, W Ad­di­son, S McCloskey, J Stock­dale; B Burns, D Shana­han; E O’Sul­li­van, R Best (c), M Moore; A O’Con­nor, K Tread­well; S Reidy, J Mur­phy, M Coet­zee. Subs: R Her­ring (for Best, 64), A War­wick (for O’Sul­li­van, 64), R Kane (for Moore, 64), I Na­gle (for O’Con­nor, 64), N Ti­money, J Ste­wart, M Lowry (for Burns, 69), D Cave.

RAC­ING: B Dulin; S Zebo, V Vakatawa, H Cha­vancy, J Imhoff; F Rus­sell, M Machenaud; G Gogichashvili, D Szarzewski, B Tamei­funa; B le Roux, L Nakarawa; W Lau­ret, B Chouzenoux, A Claassen Re­place­ments: T Baubigny (D Szarzewski, 64) V Kakovin (for Gogichashvili, 61), G-H C-Reazel (for Tamei­funa, 54), B Palu (for Chouzenoux, 21), F San­con­nie (for Lau­ret, 70), T Irib­aren (for Machenaud, 61), O Kle­menczak (for Zebo, HT), B Volavola (for Rus­sell, 69)

Ref­eree: M Car­ley

Man of the match: J Stock­dale.

FEW things can make a tal­ented sportsman look less co-or­di­nated than the er­ratic bounce of a rugby ball.

When the egg-shaped pill hits the turf, left or right, for­ward or back, all bets are off. And yet, there are times when you’d swear Ja­cob Stock­dale has it on a string, at the very least pos­sess­ing some sort of sixth sense for where it will break.

He’s be­com­ing master of the chip and chase, his lat­est ef­fort a cru­cial try in Ul­ster’s 26-22 Cham­pi­ons Cup win over Rac­ing 92 and right up there with his famed Grand Slam-seal­ing and All Black-slay­ing scores of the last 12 months.

His sec­ond of Satur­day’s game came in the 49th minute, prov­ing to be a key score at a key time, edg­ing his side into a 13-point lead and by the fi­nal whis­tle see­ing Dan McFar­land’s men on the precipice of the Euro­pean quar­ter-fi­nals.

“It felt pretty good just to push us that ex­tra bit ahead,” said Stock­dale. “In the end it made a bit of a dif­fer­ence. It was a nice try to score cer­tainly.

“It was a tough game. Rac­ing are a high-qual­ity side and they pushed us right to the end and they made it tough for us to come away with the win.

“But I’m proud with how we went as a team and how we nul­li­fied how they at­tacked for a good bit of the game. Ob­vi­ously, we let them in for a cou­ple of scores but it was pretty good over­all.”

Rac­ing took two points from the game to boost their own cause but never led in a game played in front of Kingspan Sta­dium’s largest, and loud­est, crowd of the year.

It was a day of high drama with Ul­ster hav­ing to over­come not only star-stud­ded op­po­si­tion but the loss of in­flu­en­tial John Cooney prior to kick-off.

Cen­tre Will Ad­di­son had goal-kick­ing duty thrust upon him, and Robert Baloucoune marked his Euro­pean de­but with a smart try, but Stock­dale was again the head­line in the pul­sat­ing, if oc­ca­sion­ally er­ror-prone con­test.

Keep­ing alive his streak of scor­ing in ev­ery Euro­pean round this sea­son, his two tries on the oc­ca­sion of his 50th Ul­ster game brought him up to 26 scores for his na­tive prov­ince and, when Test stats are in­cluded his pro record stands at an eye-pop­ping 38 in 64 games.

One thing he is yet to ex­pe­ri­ence though, is knock-out rugby. Ul­ster have not made the last eight of Europe since wel­com­ing Sara­cens to Belfast in 2014, while they have missed out on the PRO14 play-offs in both of the last two sea­sons.

While win­ning the pool seems be­yond them, they would make the last eight as a best run­ner-up ei­ther with a win on Satur­day or if Mont­pel­lier take less than two points from their trip to Ed­in­burgh on Fri­day night.

“That’s ob­vi­ously some­thing I re­ally want to tick off. It’s a mas­sive as­pi­ra­tion for me. There are not many guys in our squad now who have had that op­por­tu­nity.

“For us now, it’s about do­ing what we’ve been do­ing all sea­son and play­ing as well as we can. We can take bits away from guys like Bestie who have played in those matches but it’s just about do­ing things right.

“We can’t look past Le­ices­ter and we need to beat them to make sure we get that op­por­tu­nity. Our sights are firmly fixed on them.”

His head coach was sim­i­larly fo­cused solely on win­ning the game this week­end rather than the per­mu­ta­tions else­where.

“Don’t say that,” he replied in mock-hor­ror when asked about hav­ing one foot in the quar­ter-fi­nals de­spite be­ing drawn in a pool that con­tained two of last sea­son’s semi-fi­nal­ists.

“There was no ques­tion when the pool came out it was go­ing to be a big ask and I stand by that.

“It was a big ask but we rel­ished that op­por­tu­nity be­cause play­ing teams at this thick end of the com­pe­ti­tion, they know how to win in the com­pe­ti­tion. And for our young fel­las com­ing through and de­vel­op­ing, the op­por­tu­ni­ties to play in Paris and to play in Welford Road, and in front of our own sup­port­ers here is bril­liant.

“Scarlets back-to-back, yeah, that was a great op­por­tu­nity to test our­selves. It is go­ing to be the same, play­ing Le­ices­ter in Welford Road. I’ve been there, been in­volved in a team that has won there, that cre­ates a great mem­ory.”

Le­ices­ter are play­ing only for pride — and an un­der­strength side was well-beaten by Scarlets on Satur­day — but have been im­prov­ing in re­cent weeks and are sure to be up for a fight on their own patch.

And Ul­ster, of course, know all too well the dan­gers of play­ing English op­po­si­tion with or

with­out qual­i­fi­ca­tion hopes after see­ing their last eight hopes go up in smoke a year ago when los­ing meekly to Wasps in the Ri­coh Arena.

“I don’t like talk­ing about the his­tory,” added McFar­land. “For us, we have to build re­solve, we cer­tainly have to be re­silient.

“We need to know what makes Le­ices­ter tick and make sure we can han­dle that. They have some of the best qual­ity backs that are avail­able in the Premier­ship. They score a lot of points and go­ing into Welford Road we know we are go­ing to have to be com­bat­ive in the set-piece. We’ll just fo­cus on that.

“They throw the ball around. They have got re­ally good backs. We scrummed re­ally well against Rac­ing, it went re­ally well.

“Last time in Paris, our scrum crum­bled for a try at a point that was costly for us. This week, it didn’t and when it needed to stand up, it did so credit to the guys in there and Aaron Dun­don for coach­ing them. Le­ices­ter are go­ing to def­i­nitely test us there and we’ll have to stand up.”

Blood, sweat and gears: Ja­cob Stock­dale gets over for an Ul­ster try and (above) Rory Best shows off his bat­tle scars

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