Following Ireland's defeat to New Zealand in last year's World Cup quarter-final in Japan, Jacob Stockdale noted the messages urging him "to kill himself". In certain circumstances Twitter's effluence, the open sewer bile can quickly corrode tough veneers for all but the most phlegmatic disposition.
The mistake was to look but the siren call had proved irresistible in the past. It wasn’t the first instance where his performance was lampooned by the 280 character brigade but it was the final time that he would permit direct access, removing himself from the social media platform.
The 24-year-old isn’t naive, understanding that it was not the environment to seek out a balanced appraisal. But the vitriol, often spiteful and malevolent in tone after defeats, ensured that he would no longer afford people an opportunity to affect his mental wellbeing.
He explained: “You get certain messages, private messages and stuff that are incredibly hurtful or aggressive. After the New Zealand quarter-final I got messages from people telling me to kill myself and things like that, which is obviously awful.
“For me whenever I was reading those messages, they didn’t annoy me as much because I knew these people were trolls and they were just trying to get a reaction out of me. I’m sure . . . I’d hope they didn’t actually mean what they were saying.
“Funny enough the ones that really annoyed me were the ones where people were saying that I wasn’t any good at rugby. They were frustrating because I felt they didn’t know as much about rugby as I did. It felt that they really meant it [the criticism] and those would be the ones that would annoy me more than the people messaging me and telling me to top myself.”
He also learned the folly in attaching too much credence to the opinion of others and admitted: “If I was sick I would ask a doctor what was wrong with me but I wouldn’t walk up the street and ask a ‘randomer’ what he thought.”
It's important to note that Stockdale isn't averse to criticism, nor does he lack awareness in recognising shortcomings in performance terms. He is a far more strident taskmaster when it comes to evaluating his contribution whether for Ulster or Ireland than those who wish to set him in their verbal crosshairs.
Now if I have a poor game, score a good try, I'd still put it down as a poor performance
On that note it’s worth recounting a story that dates back to his first year on the Ireland Under-20 squad. On a cold, crisp, clear January morning in 2015 in the Lansdowne clubhouse an 18-year-old Stockdale opened his folder to reveal a customised grid in which there are handwritten notes, next to numbers; sheet performance indicators is the official term.
Sitting alongside the then Ireland under-20 coach Nigel Carolan he goes through the footage which documents the minutiae of his performances in pre-Six Nations warm-up matches against Leinster and Munster Development XVs. The notes are the player's interpretation or explanation as to whether they made a positive or negative contribution to the team and rationalising their decision-making process at that moment.
What is immediately striking is the searing self criticism as Stockdale analyses his performance. He laughs as the moment is regurgitated. “I would say that [being huge critical] is my trademark to a certain extent. I’m even worse now.”
However there is arguably more nuance to the way in which he appraises his performances. “To a certain extent, I have got the understanding more that other players are going to be able to influence the game so my opposition player playing really well can have an effect on how I play if that makes sense.
“Before if I had a poor game but scored a good try, I might put it down as a good performance whereas now if I have a poor game, score a good try, I’d still put it down as a poor performance. As my understanding of rugby has increased I am a little bit harsher on myself.”
He’s set a high bar in performance terms, a benchmarking process that takes a line from his remarkable try-scoring exploits in the 2017-2018 season, 10 in seven matches, including a record breaking seven in a Six Nations Championship that culminated in a Grand Slam for Joe Schmidt’s team. Later that year Stockdale scored the pivotal try in Ireland’s first ever victory over New Zealand on home soil.
He’s scored 16 tries in 28 caps, albeit enduing a fallow run in the last seven Test matches, where he has drawn a blank; it was a period in which the national team struggled for a playing rhythm, an arid environment in which a winger’s lot is not likely to be a happy one as opportunities dry up.
In keeping other people’s opinion at arm’s length, he operates on the premise that his honesty in performance appraisal and the feedback from the coaching team should suffice. It’s nice to read or listen to praise but there’s always the flip side. Retaining a balanced outlook is a key.
“Realistically it is impossible to avoid everything. You are going to hear people’s opinions about you. That’s fine. Generally when you don’t go looking, the stuff you are going to see is the more balanced. No newspaper is going to write an article telling me that I should retire aged 24 because I have no right to be on a rugby pitch.”
In a perfect world my preference would be fullback; that is the position that just comes to me the most naturally
In the midst of a couple of weeks off, from a rugby perspective he’s taken to watching just about every game he’s played over the last four years to try, initially out of “boredom” but then with a more holistic view. “I have been looking to see if I have improved in any way; if I can find some encouragement I’ll take it.”
So what’s he found? “The biggest thing has been my defence. Looking at games from 2017 and even 2018 up until now there are times when I’m going, ‘jeez I would be incredibly disappointed with myself if I did that now’. At one point in a match I was so out of position that I questioned whether I was on the pitch or not. The defensive positioning is probably the biggest change to my game.
“Good sportspeople, whenever they have a dip in form they don’t just do the same thing. They go back and review what they were doing when it was going right. My dip in form probably came around the World Cup time, where I felt I didn’t have the performances that I was looking for. The lockdown has given me a really good opportunity to go and watch all my games from the last four years and realise what was going right and what wasn’t.”
Expressing a preference for fullback, where he played for the Irish 20s in their run to a World Cup final in 2016 and latterly with Ulster from time to time in the abbreviated season, he appreciates that other players have stronger credentials both in Ulster and with the national team but one benefit from the occasional run out in the 15 jersey is an improved understanding of his role as a wing.
“In a perfect world my preference would be fullback; that is the position that just comes to me the most naturally. I realise that the position I can probably be most useful to the team is on the wing. In terms of playing a couple of positions over the last few years, it has made me more appreciative of what the players around me need from me.
“Whenever I am playing at fullback I am looking for the confirmation from the wingers that they have the space covered so it gives me the confidence to move to another part of the pitch. Now when I am playing wing I know that the fullback wants me to tell him that I have got this [space] covered, so I will. Playing [fullback again this season] definitely has given me an appreciation of what the players around me want.”
Stockdale's lockdown period has not all been about rugby. It's given him time to work on a recent purchase, a 1966 Mustang car. He spotted it trawling through eBay and with the help of team-mate Kieran Treadwell's father, a mechanic, whom he asked to go and check out the American muscle car in London, before deciding to buy it.
He did a five-week mechanics course to get a level three qualification so he could work on the car himself. “I am a massive car enthusiast. I wanted a second car that would be great fun and that I could enjoy myself with. I am fairly mechanically minded, I learnt a lot of stuff since I bought it from YouTube and the internet. I can take something apart, figure out how it works, and put it back together.
In these incredibly challenging times, it is important to look after yourself and others where possible
“Everything that I have done on it so far I have done myself. When I bought it, it was driveable in the loosest sense of the word. The engine runs well, the transmission is a wee bit dodgy at times but the biggest issue was the suspension. You couldn’t really get over speed bumps without taking the bottom out of the exhaust.
“That was my first job to completely replace the suspension, all four springs and the shock absorbers. That is probably the biggest job I have done on it. I have done a bit of rewiring, the horn and the radio because there was a drain on the battery.” The only downside with the 4.3 litre, V8 engine is that he can’t pass a petrol station.
The IRFU’s financial issues have had a knock-on effect for the players: “Obviously while we have taken a pay cut we are in a privileged position in the sense that we haven’t lost our job and that we hopefully have rugby to go back to in a month or two.”
His decision to get involved in mental health charity Aware’s current campaign was to his mind, straightforward. “A phone call or FaceTime can make someone’s day. In these incredibly challenging times, it is important to look after yourself and others where possible. I think it is an incredibly important campaign to be running.”
Aware is now calling on the public to do two things. Until June 5th, phone a friend, neighbour or colleague who might need cheering up or would be thrilled to hear a friendly voice and text phoneafriend to 50300 to donate €4 to the charity whose revenue stream will be down 40 per cent this year.