Stockdale proves his mettle to maintain his prolific strike rate
Despite having an earlier chip blocked by Read the Ulster winger continued to back himself
Jacob Stockdale gathers his own kick to score the crucial try against New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
“Drop it... like you know. And he did,” says Jacob Stockdale with a great big gurn (not grin) on his face.
His thought when Kieran Read stretched to beyond his 1.95 metres and blocked his attempted chip over the top before knocking on.
The son of a Presbyterian minister, in another time on another day the “he” in Stockdale’s words might well have been the mighty all powerful and all knowing HE.
Not this time. ‘He’ was the New Zealand captain, lordly in his own way in the backrow and regarded as the best number eight in world rugby
“He must have been listening to me,” adds Stockdale of Read.
Brodie Retallic, another whose name can strike fear, knocked on in the last play of the match. Two icons with feet of clay. Who is to say the rugby gods chose not to get involved.
Stockdale will take it either way. Read’s intervention did not sour the young player’s confidence to chip again moments later to score Ireland’s only try and take his soaring tally to 12 in 14 matches, seven of those coming in last season’s Six Nations Grand Slam campaign.
What might have been if the Kiwi number eight had picked and galloped off up the pitch? What then of the 22-year-old’s head space or willingness to take on a similar chipping move. But ‘what if’ never has had much currency in rugby. Stockdale’s sweet Irish scoring record has taken on a life of its own.
“Look, to be honest, that’s the message we get from the coaches. We play heads-up rugby,” he says.
“They give us that confidence to back ourselves. The first chip was maybe not the best decision I’ve made on a rugby pitch. The second one was a bit better. These things happen, I suppose. Those are the kind of things that are a bit of a risk. Sometimes they pay-off. Sometimes they don’t.
“The other one didn’t pay off. But, in the end, I suppose, to an extent, I got a bit lucky. That’s rugby union. It’s a bit of a cliché. But it is.”
Stockdale is young enough and callow enough in the Irish team to make everything he does a first of his career. Even the emotion and experiences are glazed and brand new to him.
Training ground move
The try on Saturday was his first against New Zealand having been called to the senior squad in the summer of 2017, when he scored a try on his debut against USA, before a Six Nations debut earlier this year.
But the winning dot down on Saturday came from sound training ground husbandry. It required Stockdale’s execution in tandem with the brains trust of the backroom team.
The ball was thrown to the lineout and cleanly delivered to scrumhalf Kieran Marmion. It first went inside to the right and was then transferred back to the left and Bundee Aki before he threw to Stockdale on the left wing.
Stockdale began his run and chipped the ball left-footed over New Zealand heads. He was already in stride and was able to accelerate beyond the reach All Black scrumhalf Aaron Smith, winning the vital footrace to the ball.
“It was an incredible feeling,” he says. “I can’t take too much of the credit. That was a training ground move and it paid off massively.
“The lineout worked superbly. Bundee gave me a great pass. I didn’t have to reach for it or anything. Those are the kind of situations that you want to be in, as a winger, 24/7.
“Richie Murphy, the Ireland kicking coach, has been fantastic. He is always talking about how much of a difference those chips and those grubbers down the line can make, especially if you keep them between the 15 [metre line] and the touchline. He’s been super, in terms of making my kicking skills better.”
But there was instinct involved. Stockdale had seen that right wing Ben Smith had moved to cover Rory Best and that there was space in behind the line of All Black defenders. It made the decision for him.
“It was a slightly different kick, a longer kick, to chase on to. I was just playing in the moment,” he says dismissing notions that self-doubt might have crept into his thinking after Read’s charge down the first time.
“You can’t think about that kind of thing whenever you put a ball down,” he says.
Now a new world, Stockdale watched at home as Ireland beat New Zealand in Chicago. In 2016, he was still in the Ulster Academy and was a fan more than an interested party with skin in the game. A few games for Ulster under his belt was as far as he had come in his senior career.
“I think I was still in the Ulster academy at that point, I’d barely played for Ulster,” he says of Chicago and Soldier Field and now the redrawn landscape between, where he finds himself a central player.
“Part of me can’t believe it. It’s been an incredible road to where I’m at the moment. It’s been a massive year-and-a-half for me and I don’t plan to stop any time soon.”
Schmidt has taken Ireland to a daring position of believing they are the best. It is uncharted ground. Every step of the way Stockdale has shown he’s comfortable with that level of scrutiny and the growing weight of his portfolio.
“It means everything,” says Stockdale. “There’s 113 years of guys who have played in Lansdowne Road or the Aviva and have failed to beat them. So for me to beat them at my first attempt is pretty special.”
He was on his way from the beginning. He is still.