Only six players have played more games for Ireland than Rob Kearney. Kearney has accumulated 95 caps since making his test debut in 2007. He's twice been a Lion and been an everpresent in Leinster's dominance over the last decade. But at 33 years of age, Kearney has conceded his starting spot at Leinster to the ascending Jordan Larmour. Larmour will also be taking over the starting spot for Ireland during the Six Nations.
The question now is if Kearney should remain the primary backup for his Leinster teammate. Mike Haley, who has been one of Munster's standout players so far this season, and Will Addison, who was unlucky not to make the World Cup squad, are real contenders for his spot. Haley has been secure under the high ball, kicked well, joined the line effectively and shown off far more elusiveness running the ball back in open space this year. Addison's skill set is undeniable, but a recent suspension has prevented him from starring in the Champions Cup.
Addison's suspension opened the door for Jacob Stockdale to move inside from the left wing. Stockdale has endured a rough 12 months as a winger but played very well at 15 in both Harlequins games.
Should Larmour be injured, Andy Farrell should at least consider moving Stockdale inside. Not only could that help Stockdale reclaim his form for Ireland, but it would also make it easier to fit Andrew Conway, Keith Earls and Stockdale on the field. (Who knows what will happen once James Lowe becomes available later in 2020). Farrell is taking over as a former defence coach and he's succeeding a coach who wasn't ambitious in attack. Ireland are blessed with dynamic, explosive playmakers all over the field, that's undeniable after the opening stages of the Champions Cup. Putting Stockdale at 15 would be an aggressive, attacking move, but it wouldn't necessarily be a negative defensively either.
Stockdale's defensive positioning as a fullback is far better than when he plays on the wing. Like Larmour, he shows a comfort and natural feel for the position that isn't always evident out wide. His defensive positioning and effectiveness under the high ball in both games was very good. He was also especially good at meeting ball carriers as the last man in defence when they broke the initial defensive line. He had one big tackle on a back-row forward this week and showed great patience to slow up the initial ball carrier on John Cooney's try-saving tackle.
The previous week he had an outstanding play of his own when he chased down and stopped two ball carriers in the same action. It wasn't as memorable as Cooney's because Harlequins recycled the ball and scored on the other side of the field.
In the above gif you can see the one play from the past two weeks where Stockdale's positioning allowed Harlequins to kick the ball behind him into space. They chased the kick well and trapped him in the corner of his own 22. The Ulsterman responded with one of the best clearance kicks you're ever likely to see.
Kicking is a big part of Stockdale's game that is muted by playing out wide. His most famous moment, that try against the All Blacks, obviously came off of a chip over the defensive line, but he doesn't get opportunities to attack the whole field as a winger.
He's not going to claim clearing kicks and respond by pinging the other team back into the corner Ronan O'Gara style, but Stockdale has a variety of kicking to locate and exploit space. One of the surprising aspects of his play in the middle of the field was his comfort kicking off both feet. He attempted two grubber kicks with his right foot, one was blocked, the other can be seen in the above gif.
Stockdale diagnoses the situation perfectly. There isn't space for him to attack as a carrier so he squares up to his defender before shifting his weight outside and prodding the ball through. That kick pushed Harlequins back into their own 22, which led to Ulster's bonus point try minutes later. That try was set up by Stockdale when he made a different read from a similar starting position.
Stockdale is great as a winger. He's a natural finisher so when the ball finds him as the last mine before the sideline he knows what to do. But he's even better as the second-to-last receiver. On this play, he recognizes that he's on the outside shoulder of the winger with a step to attack the space. Once he gets past the inside defender to draw in the outside defender, he executes the offload to spring his teammate free. Stockdale turned a two-on-two into a two-on-one by hitting the ball at speed, then exploiting the space that created.
The difference between kicking to Stockdale when he's in the middle of the field against when he's on the wing is huge.
In this gif, Luke Marshall can't connect on his offload so Harlequins get a quick turnover. The kick is a smart one to relieve pressure. In theory, Stockdale is in a bad position when he retrieves this ball. He had to turn and chase the ball down before turning back to see the defence. Because the Harlequins defence had been under pressure, the kick chase wasn't high and disciplined. It was one defender. One defender against Stockdale in the middle of the field is a mismatch for Stockdale no matter who it is.
After easily faking out the first potential tackler, Stockdale recognizes the space to dribble the ball into. He's unlucky not to recover his own kick and then John Cooney should pick it up but knocks on instead. Even though this play didn't work out, Stockdale's ability to run with the ball then kick changed field position in an instant.
Having Stockdale in the middle of the field allows him to get involved in more rucks when his team has the ball and it makes it easier to involve him as a chaser on high kicks when kicking the ball away. You don't have to rely on box kicks down the sideline to make use of his size and athleticism at the catch point.
Wingers can come infield and make runs off the ball carrier, but not as often nor as easily as the fullback. Stockdale's decoy runs to create space for his teammates were a constant positive in the last two games. Opponents know his try-scoring pedigree and rightfully fear what he can do when he gets the ball whether he's running the ball back from deep or joining the line as part of an attack.
Cooney kicked the game-winning penalty in the home game against Harlequins. The sequence that set up that penalty begun with this poor box kick that gave the ball to Stockdale. From there, Stockdale drew two defenders and gave a great offload to create a clean line break. It was a few phases after this that a Harlequins defender tackled an Ulster player off the ball to set Cooney up.
On this play, Stockdale generates front-foot ball by beating multiple defenders despite having to generate his own forward momentum as the ball arrives. The line he takes to negate the first defender is outstanding. He subtly changes his angle to run back through the ball instead of running onto it with the momentum of the overall attack.
He can generate front-foot ball when running back kicks against a disciplined kick chase too. This is where Stockdale's rare combination of size and athleticism makes him such a challenge to contain. Considering how long the ball hung in the air and the time it took to transition the pass from the winger to Stockdale, he shouldn't have been able to get as deep into his opponent's territory as he did.
And finally, he played a key role in setting up Ulster's first try from this past weekend. He once again found himself in that second-to-last receiver spot when he joined the line as part of a set-piece play in Ulster's 22. Stockdale had the acceleration and awareness to get in position to receive the offload before drawing multiple defenders and timing his offload outside perfectly. The winger then cut inside and found Cooney for the scrum-half to score again.
Cooney capped that play off, but just like on the game-winning kick, Stockdale executed the tougher part of the play to set up the opportunity.
Andy Farrell's job moving into 2020 is to build a team that creates competition with the ultimate goal of putting the best 15 players on the field. Joe Schmidt's Ireland was very successful so it shouldn't be a case of completely rebuilding the team, but altering the identity by embracing our more creative, dynamic players should be a priority.
Kearney, Addison, Haley and even Conway would be fine options at fullback behind Larmour. None of them are game-breakers at the international level the way Stockdale would be though. Maybe Addison could come close.
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