|Venue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast Date: Friday 8 October Kick-off: 19:35 BST|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Two Northern Ireland, iPlayer and the BBC Sport NI website from 19:00 BST; full live text commentary, match report and highlights|
Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale says he is a “much better” rugby player now that he was when he burst onto the international scene in 2018.
The wing, then 21, broke the Six Nations try-scoring record on the way to being named Player of the Tournament in a memorable breakout campaign.
The years since have been more of a mixed bag for the Lisburn man, who is adamant that his best years lie ahead.
“It was probably a year where everything went right,” he reflects.
“I feel like a much better rugby player now than I was back then, but it was just one of those seasons where everything seemed to bounce in the right direction, quite literally sometimes.”
Stockdale scored nine tries in his first 11 international games, before a sensational score in Ireland’s first ever home win over New Zealand catapulted his reputation onto another level, with some touting him as the best wing in the world.
The lofty heights reached in 2018 perhaps opened the door to some of the criticism that has come his way since.
An ever-present in Andy Farrell’s Ireland set-up when fit, and still finding the try-line regularly if not quite the frightening frequency of his breakthrough season, Stockdale remains one of the country’s most potent attackers but has come under fire for defensive frailties that have sometimes dominated the narrative surrounding his place within the team.
“I think as well you have to remember I was in a very good Ireland squad that was playing very well. In that 23 or 25-man squad that played in the Six Nations you couldn’t pick one that wasn’t in good form at that time,” he said.
“I don’t worry about trying to replicate that. If you start chasing things you’ve done in the past you end up chasing your tail. For me I’ve learned to be focused on the process, and to be process-driven rather than outcome driven.”
‘There were “we hate Jacob Stockdale” pages’
It has been seven years since Stockdale made his senior Ulster debut, bursting onto the scene as an 18-year-old with a growing reputation having been named Ulster Schools Player of the Year.
In his early professional years he established himself as a difference-maker for both club and country, earning a reputation for an ability to create something from nothing.
As his profile grew so too did expectation, and criticism became louder when he failed to reach the lofty heights he had set for himself.
Stockdale still regards Ulster’s 21-18 Champions Cup quarter-final defeat by Leinster, during which he spilled the ball over the line with his team in the lead, and the aftermath, as the lowest point of his career.
“It’s funny, when something bad happens you hear people go ‘I’m glad it happened to me’, I’m not to be honest,” he said.
“I would have liked to have scored that try and pushed us on into the semi-finals. That being said the amount of resilience I learned coming out of that was massive for me, in terms of dealing with trolls, upset and being able to bounce back whenever you don’t feel that confident.
“A couple of days after the game were really tough for me. There were pages of ‘we hate Jacob Stockdale’, all the usual stuff to be honest, but it was just something that I have to learn to deal with.
“Boys still take the mick out of me for it. Stuart McCloskey tried to teach me how to set the ball over the line, and that’s good, that’s what good team-mates are for.”
Missing out on Lions ‘devastating’
At the mid-point of the four-year British and Irish Lions cycle, Stockdale was a good bet to be part of the squad to tour South Africa in the summer of 2021.
However, a dip in form exacerbated by injury saw the Ireland wing fall down the pecking order to the point that his omission from head coach Warren Gatland’s panel did not come as a surprise to most onlookers.
“If I’m honest I was pretty devastated. Probably most people weren’t expecting to see my name there, I was but I’m a bit biased,” Stockdale admitted.
“I was hoping that I had maybe done enough to be in with a chance of selection.
“There’s plenty more rugby to be played and massive opportunities. Every time you put on an Ulster shirt you hope to be playing for Ireland, and every time you put on an Ireland shirt you hope to be playing for the Lions.”
In 2020 Stockdale spent much of his time at full-back, with Ireland boss Andy Farrell keen to see how the Ulsterman would fit in the position following the retirement of long-time starter Rob Kearney.
However, the emergence of Hugo Keenan, and more recently the return of Simon Zebo from Racing 92, have seen Ireland move away from Stockdale in their pursuit of a first-choice full-back, with the Ulsterman moving back to the left wing.
“In all honesty I get more of a kick out of setting up tries than scoring tries, which is probably why I was enjoying my stint at 15 so much,” he reflected.
“I don’t really know if I’m ever going to play there again, which is OK. I’m happy on the wing, at full-back, or 12 or 13.
“I really enjoy the freedom that full-back gives, but on the wing is probably where I feel more comfortable.”
Watch the full interview with Jacob Stockdale as part of coverage of Ulster v Benetton, starting at 19:00 BST on BBC Two NI and online.