Jacob Stockdale relishing role as spearhead of Ireland’s success
Winger reflects on a dream year and looks ahead to World Cup in Japan
Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale scores a try despite the attempts of Damian McKenzie and Aaron Smith of New Zealand to stop him during the November international series at the Aviva stadium. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Jacob Stockdale might be the deadliest finisher in European rugby but he reflects on his remarkable year with a light touch. The Ulster winger was the player of the tournament while setting a Six Nations record by scoring seven tries as Ireland sealed the Grand Slam. Stockdale also made the difference with the only try of the game when Ireland beat New Zealand last month to complete a year in which they could claim to be the best side in the world.
Stockdale has already told me about going into jail with his father, the chaplain at Maghaberry prison in Belfast, so he could talk to inmates who have been locked up after committing violent crimes. He has also confirmed his love for Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and proved himself an assured 22-year-old who is different to many of his contemporaries. It is striking that, before we discuss his try against the All Blacks, Stockdale has a laugh about himself as he remembers missing the first time Ireland beat New Zealand – in a momentous match in Chicago in November 2016.
He had made his debut for Ulster earlier that year and so he was not a member of the Irish squad. “Devastatingly, I didn’t see it live,” Stockdale says on a quiet afternoon in Belfast. “I watched the game later, on record, but I was actually at a play. Everyone was like: ‘What did you think of the game?’ I had to say: ‘I wasn’t watching it’ and they went: ‘What!’”
Stockdale looks horrified. He then smiles when I say that, hopefully, he enjoyed the theatre. What did he see? “I can’t remember. It was terrible. I was actually with my ex-girlfriend and her parents. During the interval, turning my phone on, I said: ‘Can I check the score?’ and she goes: ‘I’ll do it.’ She says: ‘22-0’ and I went: ‘Oh, New Zealand are running away with it.’ She said: ‘No. 22-0 to Ireland.’ For the rest of the play I was like: ‘Get me out of here.’ I got straight home and watched it the whole way through. One of the most historic matches in Irish rugby . . . and I missed it.”
He helped Ireland achieve something more substantial when beating New Zealand in Dublin. “It was an incredible experience to be involved in that game,” Stockdale says of last month’s epic match. “To be the first team to beat the All Blacks in Dublin, and to get a try, was special.”
Stockdale’s try displayed his speed, guile, opportunism and strength in a few blurring moments which set the Aviva stadium alight. But he concentrates on Ireland’s execution of a plan which their coach, Joe Schmidt, had hatched five years before. It was clever and clinical as Johnny Sexton, in a deft change, switched direction and set Bundee Aki free. The inside centre spun out a long pass to the flying Stockdale. There was still a lot of work to do and Stockdale ran hard before arcing the ball over the onrushing defence, coolly collecting the rebound and holding off the desperate attempts to stop him.
“It was a set play Joe ran back in 2013,” Stockdale reveals. “It didn’t work but that’s what Joe does. If it doesn’t work he’ll put it into some big Filofax of plays. He puts it on the back burner for a couple of years and then brings it out again. This time it worked. The biggest part of that plan is making sure their 15 goes so you can isolate that corner. You want their forwards to be chasing round the corner and then you step back inside. It wasn’t set for me to kick it but I saw Ben Smith rush up and that space opened up. So I chipped it through. Luckily that one didn’t get charged down.”
Stockdale can see himself catching the ball and, using all his strength, resisting Aaron Smith hanging onto his legs as he burst over the line. Stockdale was buried beneath a green pile of jubilant team-mates. His try swung the match towards Ireland with a 16-6 lead early in the second half.
“It’s genuinely tough to put your feelings into words. It’s probably a mixture of blind panic and excitement. And, really, disbelief. But that match showed how our defence has got a lot better. Over the last couple of years Andy Farrell’s come in as defence coach and he’s been fantastic. There’s also more belief. When we lost to them in 2013 [24-22 in the last minute] there was the feeling we were holding on and trying not to let them score. This time we were trying to attack all the way through. We went after them with confidence. That’s down to the coaches and senior players. They made a big impact.”
That truth is plain when considering Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Rob Kearney and Ireland’s hard core. But the tyros, led by Stockdale, give Ireland real zip. They carry no psychological baggage because, in 2016, even before the senior team won in Chicago, Stockdale and his team-mates beat New Zealand’s under-20s.
“I don’t know whether that under-20’s result made a big difference. There was not a single player from their under-20s playing for the All Blacks in Dublin. But we had massive confidence from winning in Chicago. That’s knowing, if you play well, you are more than capable of beating them.”
How has Schmidt transformed Ireland? “He forces you to be that 1 per cent, 2 per cent better each time you step onto the field. He makes sure everything you do as a team, and individually, is excellent – whether cleaning out a ruck or making a pass. He’s created a culture where I go into training and know my passing needs to be nailed on and I need to be hitting rucks. I also need to know my role inside out because he just doesn’t accept anything else. That’s what good coaches do. He’ll be nice and calm but he’ll have a go at you whenever you need to pull your finger out.”
Under Farrell, who will succeed Schmidt as head coach after the World Cup, Stockdale’s previously suspect defence has improved markedly. “I’m not saying my defence is perfect now. It’s nowhere near it. But it’s getting better and I’m making reads easier. That’s down to Andy and Jared Payne [Ulster’s defence coach]. They have made me more confident in defence. I’m actually enjoying defending rather than hating it.”
Stockdale’s growing maturity also stems from his family – with his father Graeme exerting a profound influence. He might have been announced as BBC Northern Ireland’s Sports Personality of the Year but there is no swagger in Stockdale as he describes visiting Maghaberry with his dad so he could participate in a Q&A with the prisoners. “Going into the prison was a brilliant experience. It’s the highest security prison in Northern Ireland and I suppose it’s where the worst of the worst are housed. But Dad’s work is brilliant and I was really proud to see how he changes people’s lives.”
What questions did the prisoners ask Stockdale? “A lot was how I deal with setbacks and losses. Also, how fast can I run? How much can I bench? There was a good array of questions.”
Did he quickly forget that the men were prisoners? “Yeah. That was the one thing which surprised me. Going into the prison you expect a very hostile environment with lots of tough guys. It’s the opposite. Many are really nice blokes. They made a mistake and while they’re inside they want to improve themselves. A lot do degrees. I was chatting to a guy who has done a strength and conditioning degree. The knowledge gained in prison was impressive.”
Stockdale shows me his tattoo of a cross. I suggest he must have seen impressive inkwork in Maghaberry. “Yeah,” he laughs, “there were a few good prison tattoos.”
It’s not surprising to learn that Stockdale had begun a criminology degree which he only set aside when his rugby career took over. “I’d really like to go back to it. I enjoyed studying it but it depends what I decide to do with life after rugby. I would love to be a coach. I’d love to get into the media. It’s deciding what best suits me and doing a degree around it.”
It’s unusual to hear a whizz-kid, on the brink of stardom, thinking about coaching. “I have done some coaching at Lurgan,” Stockdale says, “and had a wee bit of experience coaching first years at my old school – Wallace in Belfast. I really enjoyed it.”
Has he been a successful coach? “Yeah the under-20s [at Lurgan] are unbeaten. 100 per cent record. But they’ve only had two games with me.”
Stockdale smiles and points out that, for all his exploits with Ireland, life in Belfast is grounded. “Once you’re back here you get brought to ground pretty quickly. I’m also excited playing for Ulster. We’ve got a young, hungry squad. This season we’re under no illusions we’re going to be world beaters. That takes a while but we’re competitive. We’re picking up wins.”
Having beaten Scarlets away and at home the last two weeks, Ulster have a real chance of making the Champions Cup quarter-finals. Stockdale scored in both matches and, with the year almost over, he allows himself to briefly look ahead to the World Cup. Does he think about winning the tournament?
“Everybody else is saying it out loud for us. Any player with a Tier One nation who says they’re not thinking about the World Cup would be lying. You don’t say: ‘Hopefully we’ll get to the semis and then go out’. Winning it is a massive goal. New Zealand are still the side to beat but we’ve won two of our last three games against them. They have that World Cup history and experience but I don’t think there’s the fear of New Zealand like before. We’re in a good position. We’re very confident.” – Guardian