The eagerly anticipated return of the Champions Cup at the weekend certainly did not disappoint. Other than the emphatic victory experienced by Saracens against an overpowered Glasgow every other game went down to the wire.
When the stakes are so high and the margins of victory so small there is normally a key point within a game where it is won or lost. We all wish to see a game won by a moment of magic or by the holding of nerve at the most tense of times. Unfortunately all too often it is the other side of the coin which decides a game, an unfortunate mistake or error of judgement which costs a team and this was indeed the case for Ulster on Saturday evening.
Ulster went into the game against Leinster as huge underdogs. However, from the first whistle it was evident Ulster were not there to play the role of whipping boys. They brought the game to Leinster and the European champions seemed initially shocked by the Ulster intensity. At half time the Ulstermen were 13-11 in front. The question now was could Ulster sustain the intensity.
Soon after half time Jacob Stockdale produced the type of excellent wing play which has cemented his place as one of the top wingers in the game. He received the ball around 35 metres out in little space and with plenty of defenders in front of him. With a combination of excellent footwork, searing pace and freakish power he powered his way over the Leinster line to score in the corner and potentially trigger a huge upset. The Ulster fans were boisterous in their celebrations but Stockdale did not celebrate quite as might be expected after such a huge moment. After consultation with the TMO we soon understood the conservative reaction. Having reached out to score the try Stockdale lost control of the ball as he went to touch it down under pressure from Dave Kearney.
Leinster won a penalty at the scrum and not long afterwards they scored a converted try. In a match won eventually by 3 points it is obvious to say that Stockdales miss was pivotal. In terms of the scoresheet Ulster would have led by either 7 or 9 points depending on a successful conversion. There was much more to it than that in terms of the momentum of the game. Leinster would have had to change approach had they been so far behind. The mood in the crowd would most definitely have changed.
Brian O’Driscoll described the missed opportunity as ‘unforgivable’ after the game. The term he used has caused plenty of debate. Stockdale, although still in his careers infancy and thought of as one of the best finishers in the game should have ensured he scored the try. He only needed to fall on the ball not to take the riskier option of reaching out with one hand on the ball. Ulster don’t make many Champions Cup semi finals and therefore any future opportunity to make one may not be in the near future. This certainly makes it tough to take for anyone associated with Ulster. No one will feel the pain of it more than Stockdale though. He has had a meteoric rise to the top for both club and country and will no doubt have a huge future in the sport. The hope is that this moment of poor judgement on his part does not clip his wings. It is a harsh part of the learning process and should serve to only make him a better player. It was difficult to see and hear the reaction of Stockdale after the game, the proud Ulsterman obviously devastated and apologising for costing the side victory.
The term unforgivable when the event is raw does seem appropriate. However, nothing in sport is unforgivable, terrible crimes are unforgivable, but for some supporters they may find it hard to forgive in sporting terms. You get the feeling that being such a wonderful player Stockdale will produce plenty of match winning moments in the white of Ulster and green of Ireland over the course of his career to merit forgiveness. Stockdale strikes as a player who will be relentless in his pursuit of salvation, but the event will certainly have left scars. The youngster will most certainly be forgiven, whether his mistake will be forgotten does seem a lot less likely
Written by Stefan Hamilton