FRIDAY night lights in Belfast, with the Leinster roadshow rolling into town is a long, long way from the lonely year Ireland and Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale has put in while recovering from a complicated ankle injury.
Thankfully, Ulster’s start to the United Rugby Championship has the winger’s juices flowing once again for the game, especially after their seven-try spectacular against Scarlets last weekend.
The year out, he found trying.
“I found it really, really difficult to be honest. I love playing rugby, it's probably the one thing outside of my family and friends that I enjoy most in the world and not being able to do that was really frustrating,” he states.
Outside of the team bubble, he had enough going on. He began a degree in Engineering. His wife Hannah was pregnant for almost the entire time of his recuperation.
“Although, that being said, I wouldn't recommend having a baby one week into pre-season. It can be a bit tricky,” he says with understatement.
“I tried to throw myself into things outside of rugby to have a focus so that whenever I went away from here, I was distracted. When I started getting back into training, nearing full fitness, that's when I was able to transition back into focusing more on rugby.”
There’s one module finished with the Degree. Just eleven more to go, over the course of six years. He tells wife Hannah he is a busy man but some days that just does not fly; “Unfortunately, she doesn't see it that way when she's been looking after the baby by herself all day.” With just under a year until the World Cup kicks off, fans of both provincial teams this weekend will be keen to see just how far on Stockdale’s form is, and the potential to light up a World Cup.
“I've felt a bit of that expectation from people outside me. To be honest, the way that I viewed it in my head, and this isn't a technique, it's just how I see it, I've been out for a full year. I'm bottom of the pecking order. I haven't played in a year,” he reasons.
“Other lads have rightly kicked on ahead and have been playing brilliant rugby. Even at Ulster, Ethan (McIlroy) and Robert Baloucoune, Mikey (Lowry) in the back three and Aaron Sexton now getting his chance, those guys have all pushed on and I haven't been able to touch a rugby ball other than in the gym.
“Similarly with Ireland, James Lowe, Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour, Keith Earls, Mack Hansen, those guys have all pushed on and I've been left behind. Now I view it as me playing catch-up to get back into contention rather than me thinking I'm back and I start. That's not how I see it.”
Leinster are making the short journey up the road putting their own 100% record on the line after an opening win over Zebre, and a commanding win on home turf against Treviso last weekend.
Two defeats to Ulster last year rubs a little spice into the mix. A vociferous Ravenhill crowd will certainly add much to it and given Ulster Rugby’s patient rebuilding under Dan McFarland, aided in no smart part to the revolutionising form of former Leinster man John Cooney, they will go into this game rated as equals in the eyes of the bookmakers.
“It's a 50/50, you hope they send the strongest team they can but you also hope they don't! I'm looking forward to them hopefully sending some familiar faces and I can test myself against them boys again,” says Stockdale.
“Probably because I see myself as bottom of the pile, I have nothing to protect here, I've nothing to lose.
“I didn't play for Ireland last year and if I don't play well, then I won't play for them this year, that's the way I view it. It's an opportunity for me to go out and show what I still have and the ability that I can still play at a high level for Ulster and an international level for Ireland. I don't really feel the pressure or scrutiny at the moment.”