Will Stockdale get full backing for No.15 role with Ireland?

It seems wrong to call full-back a problem position for Ireland.

It seems wrong to call full-back a problem position for Ireland.

That would be to do a disservice to one of their all-time greats in Rob Kearney, a four-time Guinness Six Nations champion, a two-time Grand Slam winner and a British & Irish Lion.

Now 33, Kearney remains the incumbent on the biggest stage for Ireland at full-back.

But age and injury and Joe Schmidt’s intention to blood new talent, means that the No.15 jersey has been passed around a lot of late.

Indeed, in the last two years seven different men have started an international for Ireland at full-back.

Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway look options for the future, while Will Addison and Robbie Henshaw have the versatility to start there in a pinch.

Simon Zebo and Tiernan O’Halloran will have to wait for another opportunity after this Rugby World Cup but there is another, a fully-fledged international and a red-hot talent who has admitted that full-back is his favourite position.

Jacob Stockdale has scored 14 tries in 19 international starts on the wing and yet, since his debut back in June 2017, those seven other men including Kearney have been given a chance at full-back ahead of him.

Stockdale’s experience there is far from limited, he started games for Ulster there as recently as last season’s Guinness PRO14 run-in and also spent time there as a schoolboy and academy breakout.

He has even worn No.13 before for his province but it is as a wing that his chances have come for Ireland under Schmidt.

On the one hand, the 23-year-old appears to be fast becoming one of the breakout stars of the world game on the wing so why try to change him?

But heading into a World Cup where adaptability is key with tight turnarounds and only a 31-man squad, could we be ready to see Stockdale shine in his preferred position of No.15?

“I’d be excited about it,” he has said. “I don’t know if Joe (Schmidt) has any interest in me playing there, but if he wanted me to, I’d be delighted to.

“[I was playing there with Ulster] because they needed me to play full-back and we had a lot of injuries.

“I really, really enjoy it but I enjoy playing wing as well so it’s really wherever anybody wants me I’ll play.

“I get the ball in my hands a bit more and I just feel a wee bit more comfortable there.”

The move to Stockdale would signify a change in emphasis for how Ireland envisage their full-back.

For so long, Kearney has been one of, if not the, premier defensive 15 in the game.

Rock solid under the high ball, reliable in the tackle and with a booming left boot, Kearney has seldom let Ireland down as the last line of defence.

And that is not to overlook his attacking game, just ask Scotland who were torn to shreds time after time by the veteran in this year’s Guinness Six Nations clash.

But there is no doubt that his backfield coverage and his experience are his key strengths and Schmidt for his biggest games has been inclined to take the cautious approach.

By contrast, Stockdale’s defensive instincts still need to be refined – the spilling of a greasy ball back in March from Elliot Daly’s grubber under pressure from Jack Nowell allowed the full-back to score a crucial first-half try.

The influence and experience of Keith Earls in the back field however would go some way to lightening that load.

And in a position like full-back, where unlike the rest of the backline you are freed up from much of the team’s attacking structure, maybe Ireland will look to their premier attacking weapon in Stockdale.

Jordan Larmour’s sidesteps might be more gif-able, Johnny Sexton might have the passing range and Garry Ringrose the outside glide, but Stockdale can just about do it all.

Fast enough to run away from his defender, light-footed enough to dance around them and powerful enough to run through them, and with a delicate left foot chip and chase, Stockdale is undoubtedly the most complete attacker in the Ireland side.

Moving those talents to No.15, putting the ball in his hands more regularly and asking defences to keep track of him opens up a whole new world of attacking options for Ireland.

Kearney inked a new deal for the 2019/20 season with Leinster and Ireland, but the clock is ticking on his career.

Stockdale and Larmour are the future, and that future could arrive as soon as this summer’s World Cup warm-ups.

Stockdale burst onto the scene in the 2018 Guinness Six Nations with seven tries and the Player of the Championship award.

He is clearly a fast learner at this level. If he is given a shot at the No.15 jersey, few would bet against him making it his own.