Grounded Stockdale unlikely to get carried away by success

Deep Christian faith underpins the prolific try-scoring winger’s perspective on life

Jacob Stockdale in action against Wales. He has scored 14 tries in 17 Tests for Ireland. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Jacob Stockdale in action against Wales. He has scored 14 tries in 17 Tests for Ireland. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Janine, his mother, sent him the compilation. ‘Jacob Stockdale Tribute – Ireland’s Future’.

His tries laced together over six minutes. Jacob intercepting. Jacob slapping away defenders. Jacob touching down in the snow. Jacob on his sixth or record seventh try in last year’s Six Nations Championship. Jacob in green, Jacob in white, with the province on his breast, with the red hand. Jacob doing what Jacob does.

“Haven’t watched it. Mum sent me the link. I said I’m not watching that,” says the Irish wing. Rugby and Christianity infuses the 23-year-old. And with faith comes modesty or at least an aversion to excessive pride. To glory in the tribute might seem like a neon light invitation to sin a little.

Far from ducking away from his convictions, it is like his rugby, Stockdale’s chosen companion. God and his rampaging runs define him. After all, who is it that gave him all that talent to carry so well.

In Ulster rugby it’s not unusual to hold a bible in one hand and a rugby ball in the other. But Stockdale’s inclusive personality and his balancing act with the sweary, boozy, stud muffin, locker room culture of the sport and his interrogation of that relationship is sweetly honest as well as a challenging path.

“It is something you kind of have to wrestle with,” he says. “I do. There are those challenges. There are challenges I don’t always get right. But you are in the culture. You fall into that culture and I have many the times.

“Yes it is hard. Don’t get me wrong. I’m in no way the perfect Christian. I’ve been drunk. I’ve done this. I’ve done that. I struggle a little bit.

“At the end of the season there, we went and had a few beers. Yeah...That’s the kind of thing that happens. I don’t want to be perceived as this goody, goody Christian. Because I know I’m not. But that’s what’s great. I can mess up. I can go back to God and say ‘sorry about that’.

Israel Folau fell foul of Australian Rugby, when they decided religious extremism and the demonisation of certain groups fell outside their norms of acceptability. An independent panel backed Rugby Australia’s decision to rip up his four-year, $4m contract following controversial social media posts, which said hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers” and others.

Folau’s views were poisonous if only for their intolerance. It’s an aspect of what he said that Stockdale can appreciate. Raised in Lurgan, a town sharply divided into Catholic and Protestant, his father Graeme is chaplain in Maghaberry Prison on the outskirts of Lisburn and before that worked as a Presbyterian minister in the Shankill Road Commission.

Wrong things

Born in 1996, two years before the Belfast Agreement, Stockdale is a post-conflict child. But he understands division and discord. He has also had an up close look at the controversial Australian. In the first Test in Ireland’s Australian tour in 2018, Folau started at fullback, Stockdale on the left wing for Ireland. In the third Test, which gave Ireland the series win, Folau again started in the backline with Stockdale on the left wing and Keith Earls switching across.

“He represents Australian Rugby and the Waratahs. He has a lot of followers out there so he has a certain responsibility, as do I, not to alienate certain people in the community, to not insult people,” says Stockdale, who was announced as a brand ambassador for Maxol last week. “That’s looking at it from a completely sociological standpoint and not putting any religion into it.

“From a religious point of view, it preaches all the wrong things about Christianity. It preaches God is a spiteful God, a hateful God. You are going to hell. You are going to burn in hell. Realistically, God is an all loving God. He’s a forgiving God. Going back to Israel Folau that’s the point he missed, that’s the point he didn’t talk about. As a Christian and rugby player it was very disappointing.

“I have no problem with someone having a different belief system to me. That’s fine. They can argue with me and tell me they don’t believe what I believe. That’s fine. I enjoy those conversations on a purely intellectual level. It’s whenever people are not respectful of other people. That’s where I draw the line. For me Israel Folau wasn’t respectful of other people.

“As a Christian and a professional sports person you don’t want to divide people. You don’t want to alienate people,” he adds. “You want people to feel comfortable coming to watch you play rugby. You want people to feel comfortable coming to support you knowing why you believe and knowing what kind of person you are.”

Last year as his reputation began to go viral he was invited into Maghaberry Prison to address inmates. The prison, built on an old World War II airfield near Lisburn, was used as a flying station by the Royal Air Force and also as a transit airfield for the United States Army Air Forces.

Among its cast of characters was Scottish serial killer and paedophile Robert Black, who died in prison in 2016. Michael Stone, who was convicted of murdering three mourners in a gun and grenade attack at an IRA funeral in Milltown cemetery in 1988 before confessing to three other killings of Catholic civilians, is currently housed there.

Thirty one of its officers have been killed. A coincidental twist is that Stockdale studied criminology before full-time rugby took over. They asked him to talk to prisoners about disappointment and success.

“Yes, I was invited into the prison last year to do a Q&A, to talk about how I deal with setbacks and deal with doing well,” he says. “Just a few Q&As with prisoners. It was brilliant. I kind of thought I’m going into a prison I’m going to be talking to robbers, terrorists and murders.

Belief system

“Then you go away and think these are just normal blokes that made a mistake somewhere and now they are paying for that. I felt they deserved to be treated like I would treat anybody else. Yes, there are some people who strayed away from that curve and are genuinely horrible people. But the vast majority of lads in there are down to earth people. They made a mistake. They accept that. They are trying to move on.

However, Stone, who who was released and then jailed again in 2006 when he tried to enter Parliament Buildings in Stormont with a pipe bomb, was not in the room during the visit.

“He wasn’t about, no,” says Stockdale.

“Again it’s the same as with everyone else. I wasn’t there to judge. I don’t think anybody else has the right to judge another person on how they live their life or what they have done. If he was dead on to me, I would be dead on to him. As much as we dislike what people have done or their belief system, you treat people as you want to be treated and not have prejudices against them for what they have done.”

With 14 tries from 17 internationals, a Bermuda holiday and a trip to Wimbledon in July is his preferred recharge after lukewarm seasonal performances from Ulster and Ireland.

He hasn’t heard from Joe Schmidt since the end of the Six Nations, probably, he feels, a good thing. It’s his first World Cup summer. More clips, he hopes, to add to the tribute sequence. Just don’t ask him to watch.

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