Gordon D’Arcy: Stockdale provides icing on the cake of a memorable year

Twelve tries in 14 Tests an incredible stat as Jacob ascends the ladder to greatness

Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale celebrates scoring the memorable try in the victory over the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale celebrates scoring the memorable try in the victory over the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

 

Jacob Stockdale moments dominated 2018. Jacob Stockdale tries, to be precise.

We have never seen his likes before. Sure, Irish rugby was blessed by Denis Hickie and Simon Geoghegan, but nothing like Jacob’s 6ft 4in, 105kg frame has worn the number 11 green jersey.

He just skins people. Twelve tries in 14 Tests are crazy numbers. He’s already passed out Geoghegan. He’ll eventually catch up with Hickie.

We all know the try that felled the All Blacks was no fluke. This can be stated with certainty having witnessed the completion of the Grand Slam at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day.

Think about the degrees of difficulty to finish that try against England. Jonny May is faster than his young marker but the English winger is on the ground having just tackled Garry Ringrose. Owen Farrell is calling for help on the short side as Conor Murray picks and pops the ball. It’s all but half-time.

The clock has been red for 1:28 with Ireland leading 14-3. May is up and after Stockdale while Mike Brown steps forward to bundle him into touch.

Jacob’s ladder goes high up into the white sky. The chip is perfect because the chase is so good. May, a pure sprinter, can’t catch up while Brown can’t turn quick enough.

Both men want to tackle him but the risk of a penalty try is too real. They grab hold but must release him. For Stockdale to knee/shin the ball forward is just so skilful on a mucky, freezing day. That it was only scored because Eddie Jones insisted on extending the dead ball area makes it all the sweeter.

Try number seven in one Six Nations campaign sends him into the record books. Rieko Ioane was nominated for World Player of the Year essentially for finishing the sort of tries Stockdale spent the entire year creating from next to nothing. Go figure.

He’s had to learn how to defend at the highest altitude imaginable for a 21-year-old – Paris and on the tour of Australia – especially considering the way Ireland’s defensive system under Andy Farrell operates with wingers high up the field. That leaves you exposed but also forces opposing play-makers into throwing dangerous balls. Hence the intercept to kill off Wales away (again, with time in the red).

We have a superstar in our midst. I particularly liked those sharp hands for Jack Conan against Italy leading to Murray’s try. Watch him soar to new heights in 2019, knowing he has the full package. His value to Ulster cannot be overstated.

New stars

But that’s the wondrous thing about this marvellous calendar year for Irish rugby. We have several new stars. Only now can we stall to properly soak it all up. We cannot move on without a few more words on Tadhg Furlong’s pass.

Any winning rugby team starts with the tighthead. We have the best number three in the business, who happens to moonlight as a 20-stone flyhalf.

Even after 80 caps I’d have been nervous executing that pass in that moment. It’s not a difficult play but I know plenty of centres who have pysched themselves out and the ball hits the grass. How many props split the English midfield in Twickenham?

One.

Tadhg also sees the space before most players, and he has the ability to take contact and offload to put someone like Jordan Larmour in the clear.

Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong scores Ireland’s second try in the second Test victory against Australia at AAMI Park, Melbourne. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong scores Ireland’s second try in the second Test victory against Australia at AAMI Park, Melbourne. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Now, contrast Larmour’s vision with Furlong’s.

Last Saturday, Rugby Players Ireland had a corporate box for ex-players to pop in for a beer, chat and a nice view of the Bath game. Larmour’s positioning from a lineout had me scratching my head. Where’s the Leinster fullback?

At first glance I couldn’t find him. There he was standing on Ringrose’s shoulder. The game hasn’t changed that much since 2015, has it? You need that traffic light momentum onto the pass, right? You don’t go until the guy inside you moves and then cascade into space or contact (ideally the former).

Not Jordan Larmour. So quick he doesn’t need a run up. What a nightmare he must be for the openside winger. You can’t predict his line from where he starts to attack. Sure enough, Sam Underhill was turned inside out.

Larmour’s rise is going to continue steadily, however for the moment he will have to remain patient. Rob Kearney is the starting 15 because experience in key positions is vital to continued success. Experience brings calmness to a side when it really matters.

Eventually Larmour can turn into a Ben Smith type of fullback or winger; devastating and solid in the same breath. For now he’s fairly useful at just being devastating. People will figure out a system that helps to defend him so he’ll become the ideal decoy. It’s already creeping in when he links up with James Lowe or Stockdale.

So much more to come. From all of them. Especially Joey Carbery. His game management and place kicks in Castres should be flipped around.

Focal point

We know he learns fast. Go back to Sexton and Rog age 23. They missed plenty of kicks that would have won Leinster or Munster games in France. They recovered the next day.

We’ll be talking about Carbery for at least another ten years. I hope!

Ross Byrne and now Ciaran Frawley are going to stay in that same conversation. And Johnny at least until 2021.

I’m already hearing perceptions about Joey. We are guilty of looking at him through a narrow lens; expectation so high that any underperformance is scrutinised. I don’t mind that he missed kicks in Castres as long as he lands the kick to put Munster into the quarter-final. That is the life of a 10, ride the ups and the downs to be the reliable focal point for the team.

Everything goes back to the example shown by Johnny Sexton (Rory Best and Pete O’Mahony too) but, for me, my favourite rugby moment of the past 12 months belongs to Keith Earls.

The result was long since decided when Mattia Bellini took off on an 80 metre sprint to the Irish line. Earls had about 95 metres to cover. Going all the way back to the 2009 Lions tour, there has been a no-nonsense attitude to Keith. No baggage, he just keeps going, no matter the score or situation.

Remember November 2013 again. Why did we lose to the All Blacks? Many small reasons but one of which was Kieran Read tracking Rob to ensure a difficult conversion that Johnny missed in a two-point game.

Keith Earls sprinted 95 yards to make a saving tackle on Mattia Bellini. It epitomised Ireland’s attitude all season. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Keith Earls sprinted 95 yards to make a saving tackle on Mattia Bellini. It epitomised Ireland’s attitude all season. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Earls dropped the hammer – risking a hamstring tear in the 80th minute – for a single reason: I can catch this man. It means nothing but in this moment I am the representative of Irish rugby. This is what we do.

That, as much as any other act, shines a light upon the culture of this group.

I’m going to make this tackle.

That’s Ireland in 2018. One defeat in Australia, some incredible tries, a beautiful drop goal and a confidence-building amount of players have been used.

Oh and we toppled the All Blacks in Dublin.

Now it’s about living up to Steve Hansen’s words the day afterwards: “let’s see how Ireland cope with being favourites in every single game”.

England will test this on the first Saturday in February.

It’s all about comfortably existing in the zone. Leinster did it for a few years after our first European title in 2009. The players took responsibility for their actions. The younger members of that team are senior men now. They understand the flow. They also know how quickly it can slip away.

These are the greatest days.

Roll on 2019.

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