Brilliant Stockdale ensures Ulster claim a prestigious scalp
Ireland winger grabs a couple of crucial tries as Racing are kept at bay in Belfast
Jacob Stockdale of Ulster scores his second try against Racing 92 during the Champions Cup clash at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty
Rory Best nimbly summed up this flawed yet invigorating victory over these artisans of Parisian rugby.
“We’re definitely a team that are trying to take steps forward,” said the 36-year -old Ireland captain, “but we are nowhere near where we want to be.”
Twice Ulster saw 13-point leads erased by the sheer desperation of a Racing 92 side devoid of the calm guidance Scotland outhalf Finn Russell was signed to provide.
“It’s tough because you want this young team to have the confidence and the belief to go and play,” Best explained. “We could have taken more out of their legs if we had kept the ball a little longer.”
The hooker sounds like the Grand Slam winner and All Black-slaying leader he has become, all the while conscious that, as Ulster captain, he needs to nurture the slow rebuilding process that is evident in Belfast.
“We’ve got to make sure that we pat ourselves on the back because that was a really tough task and we got through it, but we’ve got to keep trying to get better because I think when you look at the top teams and look at their thirst to keep winning things, I think that we probably have lost a bit of that along the way.”
David Shanahan and Billy Burns were starting conductors but it is increasingly evident that the injured John Cooney pairing up with Michael Lowry – who finished this madcap affair at outhalf – can provide a longer term solution for coach Dan McFarland.
Ulster’s season is alive, their shiny stadium crackling with delight after a thrilling if stuttering display. Onwards to Leicester this Saturday with firm expectations of reaching the Champions Cup quarter-finals.
The residue of this fixture may linger. Precisely what Simon Zebo means by his post match tweet, referring to verbal abuse from local supporters, remains unclear. The insinuation can only be elaborated upon by Zebo or an EPCR investigation.
Back to the rugby, Ulster were as magnificent in attack – all hail Jacob Stockdale with Will Addison looking a true gem for Irish rugby – as they were brittle in defence, especially when powerhouse French centre Virimi Vakatawa came calling.
The place kickers were woeful! Blustery gales provided some excuse but the unflinching Addison – perhaps too much so, as we shall explain – relieved the injured Burns while Teddy Iribaren took over from a calamitous Russell.
Truth be told, Russell’s inaccuracy cost Racing the win and, in turn, kept Ulster’s European campaign afloat.
Swings and roundabouts as McFarland’s charges could have been out of sight by the interval. Instead, Vakatawa ploughed over Burns, Stuart McCloskey and Louis Ludik for an individual salvo before creating Zebo’s corner flag touch down.
(Zebo did not reappear for the second half after exacerbating a dead leg.) Having relinquished their 13-0 lead, Ulster also surrendered a 23-10 position before Addison’s late, but not late enough – we will get there – penalty saw them limp home.
Still, Racing remain in control of Pool 4 after banking double bonus points.
There are multiple positives for Ulster to highlight in the gathering of 26 points on an evening when the European Cup team of 1999 were paraded before kick-off.
Andy Ward and friends stirred this 18,000 gathering and had parents telling those too young to remember about the epic winter of 1998/99 when David Humphreys secured his legendary status.
The Gloucester director of rugby and his assistant Johnny Bell were present, not 24 hours after Munster inflicted a heavy beating in Kingsholm, but the man who many feel should still be overseeing this Ulster project kept a low profile.
The crowd seemed ecstatic to have old warriors in their midst even if the kids have new heroes to adore.
“He’s got a bit of stardust, hasn’t he?” said McFarland about the son of a preacher man.
Stockdale wasn’t the first striker to score. Introducing Robert Baloucoune: the 21 year old Enniskillen sprinter is living proof of a functioning IRFU Sevens programme. Baloucoune’s European debut will forever be inked with a try after seven minutes.
Next, Stockdale benefited from Addison’s straight running to scuttle over for a 13-point lead that made the place rattle like it was ’99 all over again.
Racing clawed it back until Stockdale offered up his latest try for the ages on 47 minutes. The Ireland winger repeated the magic of Twickenham and the All Blacks day by squeezing away from Oliver Klemenczak before regathering a chip amidst three Racing defenders.
Ulster looked nailed on for a bonus point but their lack of squad depth and experienced decision-makers was badly exposed. First Bruce Dulin then Klemenczak breached a flagging defence, with Iribaren’s conversion making it a one -point game with 15 minutes to play.
That Ulster survived at all is down to good fortune. Jordi Murphy went from hero, with a textbook late turnover, to villain, fumbling Rob Herring’s lineout throw, to allow Vakatawa thunder towards the try line. Replacement referee Andrew Jackson, Matthew Carley limped away at half-time, instantly called a forward pass on the offload that put Juan Imoff clear.
Then, and this would have been unforgivable, McFarland’s message for Addison to stall over his 80th minute penalty kick did not reach its intended target. With six seconds on the clock, Racing were allowed restart a four-point game but Addison (who else?) caught the ball and booted it to safety.
Nowhere near where they want to be, but vital signs nonetheless.
Scoring sequence – 2 mins: B Burns pen, 3-0; 7 mins: R Baloucoune try, 8-0; 13 mins: J Stockdale try, 13-0; 20 mins: V Vakatawa try, 13-5; 25 mins: W Addison pen, 16-5; 27 mins: S Zebo try, 16-10. Half-time. 47 mins: J Stockdale try, 21-10; W Addison con, 23-10; 58 mins: B Dulin try, 23-15; 63 mins: Olivier Klemenczak try, 23-20; T Iribaren con, 23-22; 80 mins: W Addison pen, 26-22.
ULSTER: L Ludik; R Baloucoune, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, D Shanahan; E O’Sullivan, R Best(captain), M Moore, A O’Connor, K Treadwell, S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee. Replacements: R Herring for R Best, A Warwick for E O’Sullivan, R Kane for M Moore, I Nagle for A O’Connor (63 mins), M Lowry for B Burns (68 mins).
RACING 92: B Dulin; S Zebo, V Vakatawa, H Chavancy, J Imhoff; F Russell, M Machenaud; G Gogichashvili, D Szarzewski (capt), B Tameifuna, B Le Roux, L Nakarawa, W Lauret, B Chouzenoux, A Claassen. Replacements: B Palu for B Chouzenoux (21 mins), O Klemenczak for S Zebo (half-time), V Kakovin for G Gogichashvili, F Sanconniefor B Chouzenoux, T Iribaren for M Machenaud (all 62 mins), T Baubigny for D Szarzewski (64 mins), B Volavola for F Russell (69 mins), M Machenaud for T Iribaren (79 mins).
Referee: M Carley (England) replaced by A Jackson (half-time).