Six Nations: Ireland star Jacob Stockdale unfazed by marked man status
|Six Nations 2019: Ireland v England|
|Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Date: Saturday 2 February Kick-off: 16:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 live and Radio Ulster, plus live text commentary & highlights on the BBC Sport website.|
It may seem hard to recall, but 12 months ago Jacob Stockdale was still a relative unknown in Test rugby.
A debut try against USA in June 2017 was followed by another against South Africa and two brilliant tries in the win over Argentina in the autumn series but, as he faced into his first Six Nations, his place in the Ireland team was far from certain.
He has not stopped scoring either.
Twelve tries in 14 appearances in green and 26 tries in 51 games for Ulster - including seven in his eight matches this season - are the most obvious measure of his prolific rise.
"All of a sudden, people are taking photos of you in the street and there are paparazzi outside the hotel, which was very strange to me," said the 22-year-old, who names captain Rory Best as one of the team-mates who helps to keep his ego in check.
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"It's pretty easy to keep your feet on the ground because professional sport moves on so quickly," he continues.
"If you hang around and get too caught up in what you've done, you can be left behind.
"Exactly a week after we won the Grand Slam I was playing away in Cardiff for Ulster and we lost, which is a pretty good way of getting your feet back on the ground."
Stockdale ready for special attention
Following up a new Six Nations scoring record by getting the crucial try to defeat New Zealand in November has firmly established Stockdale as a marked man on the field.
Having scored in each of Ulster's first five European Champions Cup pool matches, it was striking to see how Leicester closed him down at every opportunity in their final-round match at Welford Road.
Defence coaches across the Six Nations will be warning their players to pay special attention to Ireland's strapping left wing.
"Obviously the more tries you score and the more recognisable you are on the pitch, then the more there is a target on your head," he conceded.
"I'm not naive in the sense that I realise teams are now starting to look out for me in attack, but it's not something that I've noticed massively.
"The tries Ulster scored against Racing and Leicester were good team tries and part of the game is that, when you're not getting the ball, to run lines and pull defenders and drag defenders so you create space for other players.
"It's not always going to be me on the end of the try - I wish I was - but it's not going to be me every time."
Chip-and-chase Stockdale's signature move
If scoring tries is Stockdale's specialty, then the chip-and-chase is fast becoming his signature move.
The scintillating try against the All Blacks last November was a repeat of his decisive score to help Ireland beat England and clinch the Grand Slam on St Patrick's Day last season.
He produced a similar effort in Ulster's crucial victory over Racing 92 three weeks ago when he scooped up his own bobbling kick that wrong-footed three defenders.
The unpredictable bounce of the oval ball is one of the great clichés of rugby but Stockdale appears to be proof that when your luck is in, you can do no wrong.
"I honestly don't know. It hasn't always bounced nicely for me," he grins when asked to explain how he has learned to control the uncontrollable.
"I think a big part of it is the quality of the kick you try to put in.
"If you get that nice angle on the bounce there is only really one way it can go: It can either go up or it can go straight rather than left or right.
"So that's a big part of it and I probably have got lucky in a couple of games I suppose."
Schmidt system 'demands accuracy'
Ireland will hope that his luck continues on Saturday as England seek to become the first team to win a Six Nations match in Dublin during the Joe Schmidt era.
England defence coach John Mitchell has predicted that Ireland will attempt to bore their opponents into submission by dominating possession.
'Boring' is hardly a label that can be attached to Stockdale, who stresses how difficult it is to perfect Schmidt's system.
"Joe talks about being excellent in every small thing that you do, and that doesn't happen by accident.
"We train really well and we try to keep that accuracy in training, so that when it comes into the game we hold onto the ball and eventually, the longer you hold onto it, teams are going to make mistakes in defence and that's where the opportunities come from.
"That is part of our game plan, to be really accurate in everything we do and build pressure off the back of it."
Ireland have chance to top world rankings
England's visit to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday will be the first time since 2003 that the two most recent Six Nations champions will meet in the opening round and the stakes could not be higher for either side.
Ireland can overtake New Zealand at the top of the world rankings with a successful Six Nations campaign but fourth-placed England, who rediscovered their form in autumn, will be looking to improve a run of just one win from their last four games against Schmidt's Ireland.
"It's the opening game of the Six Nations, it's at home and it's against England - I don't think the fact we've done well against them over the last couple of seasons really makes a difference," said Stockdale.
"You still want to go out and beat them up as best you can I suppose.
"For me, I'm just really excited to get the Six Nations started. It doesn't feel like a year ago since it finished.
"As soon as it ended last year I remember thinking I couldn't wait for it to start all over again. I'm just dead excited and I can't wait to get started."