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