Jacob Stockdale: the fearless rookie producing All Black numbers

21-year-old’s superb pace and try-scoring ability makes up for his defensive weaknesses

The fearless rookie setting flame to a tournament is rare alchemy.

Sporting comparisons to Jacob Stockdale’s head-spinning arrival are joys to remember. That scorching summer of 1995 when Jayo “Boom Boom” Sherlock’s bootless goal against Laois followed a dagger into Rebel hearts. Con O’Callaghan repeating that scene. Robbie and Duffer weaving spells in Japanese into Korean nights.

A rookie’s existence is fleeting by its nature but some rise and plummet back to obscurity, like tiny dancing Clare hurlers in 2013 or Setanta Ó hAilpín 15 years past.

Plenty of sporting lives are granted second acts. Denis Hickie recovered from the Stefan Terblanche experience, having sparked from schoolboy prodigy at St Mary's into try-scoring Ireland winger on debut at the Arms Park in 1997.

“Interceptions are the hallmark of smart defending,” says Hickie of Stockdale thievery against Italy (from 65 metres), Wales (with everything on the line) and Scotland. “Reading the attack, getting into the space between two attackers and stopping the ball, it’s smart defending by Stockdale.”

The theory laid at Hickie’s feet – that Stockdale is such a thrilling attacker his defensive flaws are worth the risk – is rejected as overly simplistic.

“The idea that a 21-year-old would be the complete player – as an international – I don’t think that’s realistic.”

Hickie toured South Africa in 1998 when Terblanche stalled his Test match career with four chastising tries. Ireland had no defensive coach until Mike Ford arrived in 2002 so when Paddy Johns's pack got badly bullied, a week after the battle of Bloemfontein, the young winger was exposed.

Andy Farrell has made Stockdale a personal project, shadowing him on the Carton paddock, patiently moulding this powerful Ulster specimen into an expert defender capable of avoiding glitches at Twickenham that have been all too evident this season.

“I go to the games and hear people saying things,” Hickie continues, “but at 21 you have a lot to learn. Everyone is entitled to that: time to learn their trade. It’s a measure of how good a player he is that he can perform so well at the age he is at.”

High-pressure environment

Hickie regained the green jersey for the watershed 2000 Six Nations, making a try-saving tackle in Paris on Marc dal Maso; similar sprinter's pace might be needed from Stockdale today.

“You can’t be the player at 20 that you are at 30 – it’s just that this job is done in a public, high-pressure environment.”

In that environment Stockdale remains a defensive liability. For all his gifts – cannon left boot, pace and a predator's sixth sense – poor positioning and tackle technique have veered from poor in Ulster's defeat to Leinster at the RDS on January 6th to straight-up missed tackles on Blair Kinghorn and Stuart Hogg last Saturday (Scottish scores were averted by Dan Leavy and Garry Ringrose heroics).

Hickie’s point holds and, very politely, he educates us about the flaw of such obvious criticism.

“Tackling and defending are always mixed up. They are related but they are not one in the same thing. Tackling is a skill like anything, the more you practise the better you get, like kicking or scrummaging or throwing the ball in.

"Defending is far more systemic. That's one of the problems, Ireland have had a rotating door at 13 for the entire Six Nations so there is huge instability in that outside channel's defensive system.

"People are learning the system – there is a very broad group and everyone knows the system they are playing – but they have not had that continuity of players because of very unfortunate injuries [to Ringrose in January with Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell laid out mid-tournament]."

Brian O’Driscoll provided this continuity for 15 years. Ringrose has shown enough evidence that he is capable of filling the void.

“We have a big focus on our defence as a team,” said Stockdale after Italy. “Andy Farrell puts a real onus on us, as wingers, to lead our defensive line. It’s a big part of Joe’s game and it’s something I am trying to make a big part of mine.”

The worry persists but six tries in three games makes him the irresistible number 11.

“The Stockdale error on the second [Welsh] try would be a small cause for concern,” said O’Driscoll recently on radio, before adding, “10 tries in eight, they are New Zealand numbers . . . but it’s not just his try scoring, it’s his small touches, [and] knowing when to release the pass.

“Ireland got very narrow for that [Aaron] Shingler try when Wales went out the back. Bundee had it, not covered because we were still going to be stretched, but Stockdale came flying in and if you are going to come shooting in as a winger you got to stop the ball or force a big looped pass to allow the scramble defence to come in behind. He left too much work for Rob Kearney to do on Navidi.”

Ulster wingers have made a habit of charging in – Andrew Trimble has trademarked it – to "slam the gate shut".

“It happens a lot quicker in international rugby,” O’Driscoll added. “He got caught out.”

Stockdale knew it.

“I need to get this,” was his thinking when going for the 80th-minute intercept of Gareth Anscombe’s looping pass that promised a 14-point swing. “We had really good pressure from the interior defence, I think it was Chris Farrell and he put a lot of pressure on and got into the path. I knew they would have to go over the top, and luckily he did, and I was in the spot to get it.”

Tough question

When Schmidt was asked, in the gap week between Wales and Scotland, how many times he will allow a young player to make the same mistake the answer ran to 360 words.

“Yeah, it is a really tough question because one of the things about young players is that you’ve got to be careful they don’t lose their confidence.

“You are always trying to build their confidence within, I suppose, the brutality of giving transparent information. Sometimes that is brutal. The visual fact that was shown in here this morning [the Welsh review] was tough for some people and some of those people were experienced players. But, with the younger players, we try to find a few positives for them as well.

“It is one of the reasons why, even in [picking] young players sometimes, you might just keep your powder dry for a while, get them into the environment, get them to understand what the expectation is going to be, so that you don’t suddenly throw them into the fire.

“Because once they’re burned, it can take a while to rebuild them. “Saying a player has made the same error for maybe two, maybe three games in a row, I suppose they are less likely to make the error if they are continually worked on and made reference to, so that they can see the picture better, so that they can develop a better understanding, so that they can deliver what’s needed.

“You’re always trying continually to build that spiral. Unfortunately, if you then don’t select them, the spiral of confidence starts to detract from any building that you have done. It is a balance . . .”

Stockdale echoed his coach in 15 words: “The only way you get better at playing international rugby is by playing international rugby.”

Six tries in the Six Nations. Three intercepts. Another surging on to Joey Carbery’s cleverly disguised ball, he finished that wondrous Johnny Sexton cut out pass and the Ringrose loop.

"Young Jacob Stockdale – the boy knows where the try line is," Schmidt said late last Saturday night. "There are still things in his game, he has lots to work on."

Ten tries from eight caps for this fearless rookie. These All Black numbers are more than enough for now.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent