After a year when everything he touched turned to gold, 2019 has not been the follow-up act that Jacob Stockdale had hoped for, but it is one he was prepared for.
The top try-scorer in the 2018 Six Nations helping Ireland win the Grand Slam, plus a memorable solo try to beat the All Blacks last November, was always going to be hard to top - and he knew it.
This year he’s had to learn how to play without the ball and after a difficult World Cup, both personally and for the team, he is back at Ulster still absorbing new life lessons and searching for his first try of the season, which he hopes could come in today’s Champions Cup home game against Harlequins.
“It was a bit of a challenge to park the disappointment of the World Cup but I wasn’t necessarily playing badly, I just wasn’t getting the involvements that I wanted,” he says.
“When you’re playing outside, particularly in the World Cup, in a team that aren’t attacking that fluidly it is frustrating as a winger.
“At the same time, there’s a lot more that I could be doing to go looking for the ball and looking for involvements, and that’s something I need to grow into my game a bit more, and it’s definitely something I’m working on.
“I kept saying this when things were going my way, and I’m not sure people believed me, but I always knew there were going to be times where the ball wouldn’t kick my direction or the pass wouldn’t go to hand.
“That’s the nature of rugby, that’s the nature of sport. Things aren’t always going to be going your way, but it’s about controlling the controllables, and for me it’s about doing everything I can well.
“I do back myself as a decent attacker and I want the ball in my hands as much as I can, so hopefully I can get those opportunities over the next few weeks.” Stockdale’s aerial capabilities will certainly be tested today against having been selected at fullback, in place of the suspended Will Addison.
He believes the criticism of his defensive capabilities is unfair and intends answering all of that on the pitch, which is why he enjoyed his try-saving cover tackle against Bath which sealed a precious opening away win in round one of the campaign.
“I don’t think that won us the game, it was a two or three second involvement, but it was just a nice way to finish it off.
It is definitely something that I’m learning, that I don’t have to be scoring tries to be having an impact on the game.
“Obviously it’s nice to score tries and it’s good fun, but being good in the air or being good defensively or doing the behind the scenes work, those are the kind of things that can make a massive difference.” Ulster are, as Stockdale puts it, “in the driver’s seat” in this group after wins already against Bath and Clermont. Winning back-to-back games with ‘Quins over the next seven days will not seal qualification, but are essential to stay in control of the group.
“They (Harlequins) have the highest success rate in tackles in English Premiership, they also have the most amount of tackles as well, so they are defensively a very impressive team,” added Stockdale.
“I think they try to exert pressure on teams and force teams to play down alleys and they get turnovers off the back of that and are able to attack.” Ulster make five changes from the side which had a bonus-point win over Scarlets in the PRO14 last weekend.
Louis Ludik is moved to the wing, with Craig Gilroy preferred to last week’s man-of-the-match Robert Balacoune. Luke Marshall returns at outside centre and Billy Burns is in at fly-half.
Ireland internationals Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy are back, while England star Kyle Sinckler returns to the visitors’ front row for his first game since the World Cup final, when he was forced off after just two minutes.
Tevita Cavubati and Semi Junatani are brought into the Harlequins pack.