Jacob Stockdale (Getty Images)
Jacob Stockdale gets the chance to stake his claim to be the long-term Ireland fullback on Saturday, a role that was essentially the preserve of Rob Kearney for over a decade.
The move from the wing for the Six Nations clash with Italy may be the change of scene the 24-year-old Ulster star needs as his meteoric rise to become one of the most feared try scorers in the sport has flattened out.
Having scored 16 tries in 21 Tests – including a Six Nations record of seven when Ireland achieved the Grand Slam in 2018 – he has gone seven without crossing the tryline.
This drought and a general view he has been under-performing has inevitably led to criticism some constructive but some very personal.
The personable back – who spent part of the coronavirus lockdown ringing round for a mental health charity – brushes aside the social media abuse telling him to go “kill himself”.
However he admitted the posts that really annoy him are those telling him he cannot play rugby from those who he says do not understand the game.
“If I was sick I would ask a doctor what was wrong with me but I wouldn’t walk up the street and ask a ‘randomer’ what he thought,” he told The Irish Times earlier this year.
One who clearly has faith in him is Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, although there were words of warning in his remarks about him when pressed.
“It’s very simple with Jacob, he knows where he’s at but we know what class he’s got,” said Farrell after announcing his team on Wednesday.
“He’s come back into camp in a determined mood and a serious mood so we’re expecting him to be at his best and if he’s not, that’s what happens within a career isn’t it?
“We’ve all seen that.
“You ride these times and he’s certainly in a good enough mental space to be able to do that.”
Stockdale will need to be in a positive frame of mind for not only has he to fill the sizeable boots of two-time Grand Slam winner Kearney – who retired from Test rugby last month – but pressure from others.
Leinster’s gloriously unpredictable wing cum fullback Jordan Larmour would have been a contender for the full-back role and will be again once he returns from injury in a few months.
Should the full-back experiment not work out his way back to the wing may be blocked by fellow 24-year-old Hugo Keenan, who gets his chance to stake a claim having been give his debut start against Italy.
Farrell believes Stockdale – whose frame of mind has been helped no end by getting engaged in July to Hannah who he first met at school 13 years ago – can prove a success in the position.
“We’ve had quite a few sessions under our belt now so we have looked at different combinations and we’ve been very impressed with Jacob,” said Farrell.
“He is learning the trade pretty quickly in the back field.
“He is learning to adapt and get stronger there.
“We think he has all the attributes to push forward in that position and there will be elements of his game we need to keep pushing forward.”
Farrell – who knows all about having to adapt having switched codes from rugby league to rugby union when he was a player – says in fact Stockdale’s qualities may have been wasted on the wing.
“What you don’t see on the wing with Jacob from time to time is his skill level,” said Farrell.
“He has got great vision, he is able to see things and he has great hands as well.
“He hits a brilliant line and you don’t always get to do that from the wing.
“Hopefully we can get him involved as much as we can.
“Also it’s a great option to have that left boot at the back.”
Kick-off on Saturday is at 16:30 SA time.
Jacob Stockdale, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11
Hugo Keenan, 10 Johnny Sexton (captain), 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7
Will Connors, 6 Caelan Doris, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Andrew
Porter, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Cian Healy
Substitutes: 16 Dave
Heffernan, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Peter
O’Mahony, 21 Jamison Gibson Park, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Robbie Henshaw