While the court of public opinion appears to have made their verdict, Andy Farrell and his assistant coaches will be weighing up whether to stick or twist with Jacob Stockdale, be it at fullback or wing.
Stockdale has admitted his basics let him down in last Saturday’s 35-27 defeat by France, his second Test at fullback, yet as the squad reassembles on Friday in readiness for the upcoming Autumn Nations Cup he still believes he can be a Test quality ‘15’.
After moving around between centre, wing and fullback, Stockdale made his name as a ‘15’ when scoring four tries in Ireland’s run to the final of the 2016 Under-20 World Championship. He likes the position’s greater attacking variety, and he brings an offloading and passing dimension, as well as a big left boot.
But, like a goalkeeper, as the last line of defence he is discovering that his mistakes are magnified and hence scrutinised in what is a more nuanced position.
The stand-out example last Saturday was the failure to gather a slippery ball from a grubber by Vincent Rattez which led to a penalty try, coming as it did moments after getting away with another fumble on the deck.
“I’ve played fullback a number of times, I’ve played wing enough and I’ve cleared those balls hundreds of times before,” said Stockdale, who was launching Maxol’s annual charity Christmas fundraiser for Aware. “It’s just one that gets you and makes you go ‘right okay, I maybe need to refocus, I maybe need to do a bit of practice of clearing up those nasty grubbers’. That’s it. It’s not a big existential crisis.”
True, mistakes happen. Actually though, more worrying was Stockdale seemingly being out of position or slow to react, to varying degrees, for the other three French tries.
When Gaël Fickou put Antoine Dupont over for the first try Stockdale had plenty of grass to cover before missing his tackle on the French scrumhalf. Rob Kearney also thought Stockdale left himself with too much ground to cover when tackling Dupont before his try-scoring offload to Romain Ntamack. Stockdale was subsequently stepped by Ntamack after the latter gathered his own chip to exploit a system with the scrumhalf in the line rather than 'sweeping' and again leaving the fullback with plenty of ground to cover.
“That’s completely fair enough that Kearns would be saying something like that. We’re running with a slightly different defensive system now, which generally means that we don’t have that pendulum, with 15 coming across frequently. It was probably a fair enough point that maybe I could realise that we’re in trouble here and I could get on my bike a wee bit early. But in terms of my positional play, I was largely fairly happy with it during the game.”
Hence what's also worrying here is that there are system failures, notably when the Irish team were congregated on one side of the pitch before Ntamack initially countered after Andrew Conway had unsuccessfully chased Johnny Sexton's up-and-under.
Furthermore, those missed tackles on Dupont and Ntamack echoed Stockdale being stepped by Paolo Garbisi and Cheslin Kolbe in previous outings at fullback.
“There’s a number of nuances in the ‘15’ role that I’m not used to yet and it’s going to take me a wee bit of a while to get used to. Most people are lucky, they may get to play a season at Pro 14 level or European level, where they’re not in that international window, but I wasn’t fortunate enough to have that. So I’m having to learn, not on the fly, but the lessons that I learn are going to be learned in a much bigger sense because I’m playing in that international spotlight.”
To his credit, he didn't hide in Paris. He kept trying to make things happened. His injury-time try was a reminder that Stockdale remains a match-winner even if, alas, the match was over by then. It was his 17th in just 30 Tests, already drawing the 24-year-old level with Brendan Mullin and Andrew Trimble in joint eighth on Ireland's all-time list. By contrast, they required 55 and 69 Tests respectively. Indeed, Stockdale has the best strike record of any player in that top 10.
But if a week is indeed a long time in politics, then two years is a lifetime in rugby, recalling Stockdale's first Six Nations in 2018 when he was the top try scorer with seven and the player of the tournament.
He was also the match winner when Ireland beat the All Blacks in November of that year when gathering his own chip ahead. Although he made more metres than any other player in the 2020 Six Nations, the ball was bouncing for him that year, unlike last Saturday.
"Look, it's one of those things. Rugby and professional sport is, I believe, entirely outcome based," he said, citing the 2018 win over the All Blacks "and how everybody branded me as brave and confident because I went for the second chip after being charged down by Kieran Read. But if Kieran Read catches the ball and goes in underneath the sticks and scores five points, and then I go for a chip again and it's charged down as well, I'm branded an idiot! And that's exactly it."
“When you talk about bouncing balls sometimes they go for you and sometimes they go against you, and in 2018 they seemed to all bounce my direction, and at the weekend the ball didn’t. That’s the nature of sport, and it’s probably trying not to get too wound up in those single moments.”
Jacob Stockdale in his own words
On the days since coming home to Belfast on Sunday:
"To be honest it was really nice to get home, just kind of get the head down a bit. I suppose when you get home and you get out of the camp environment you realise that the entire world aren't watching you, people are still going on with their own lives and not worrying about you.
“I think it’s good to have that perspective but over the last couple of days I’ve just chilled out a bit, spent a bit of time with my fiancée [Hannah], went and saw my parents and walked the dog a few times. I’ve been following the presidential elections pretty closely so that’s a bit of entertainment.”
On taking himself off Twitter after last year's World Cup:
"I took a step back and said 'look, this is genuinely affecting my mental health'. I was basing my opinion of how I was playing on people I didn't know, I didn't even know if they knew the rules and they were telling me I was crap and I believed them."
On why his attacking game is better suited to fullback than wing:
"I strongly believe that, at fullback, the opportunities you get with the ball are more suited to my attacking abilities than the opportunities you'd get on the wing. You've more of a flow onto the ball and you can use a bit more, not necessarily footwork, but you can take that outside break and try to drag defenders in, which is something I was quite good at. Rather than that quality of a Jordan Larmour or an Andrew Conway – that ability to beat a player in a phone box with their footwork. I never felt I ever really had that ability. But whenever I'm moving onto the ball and travelling at pace, that's when I feel I'm a bit better."
On trying to atone for mistakes during matches:
"It's probably something that maybe gets me a bit more abuse than most people because I won't shy away from a game or take a step back and sometimes I'll make more mistakes because I'm trying more. For me, especially when you make a mistake in a game, you want to be able to right it so you keep trying to create something and make a difference in the game."