Ulster’s Stockdale living the dream
The in-form 21-year-old, who will make his home debut for Ireland today, is not sure which is his best, or even favourite position
He’s living the dream, and the dream was always playing for Ulster and Ireland. His granddad and father both played for Ballyclare, and his granddad’s first present, before he could barely walk, much less run, was a rugby ball. Jacob Stockdale was seemingly born to play rugby.
His dad was a season ticket holder at what was once Ravenhill, and from the age of six he was standing in the terraces with him. They were usually stationed on the East Terrace, around the 10-metre line, and closer to the Memorial End. He thinks the first game he attended was a Pro12 game against Glasgow. “I think Ulster won, but I’m not sure.”
He was only seven or eight when his dad brought him down to Thomond Park for a Munster-Ulster game. “My dad was a little annoyed because I couldn’t tell the difference between the Ulster and the Munster chants, and I ended up chanting for both.”
His boyhood hero is now a team-mate, so he hums and haws before divulging the player’s identity. “I probably shouldn’t be saying this, because the boys will be on to me, but Tommy [Bowe] was the boy wonder at the time, and he was the player everybody wanted to be as a youngster. Then outside Ulster it was the likes of Jonah Lomu, because he was just a phenomenal player.”
“I went and watched Tommy and Trimby [Andrew Trimble] when they were 24/25, and to be playing alongside these guys and competing with them is still a little bit surreal even though this is my fourth season in Ulster. And then to play with Charles [Piatau] as well; he’s a bit of a freak.”
Tell Stockdale that he’s not dissimilar to Bowe in some respects – strong, runs good lines and deceptively quick in that rangy running style – and he’s almost embarrassed. “That would be very complimentary to me. The back three guys at Ulster probably shaped me to some extent, in the way that I try to play and what I’ve learned off them.”
The first time he saw Ireland play, with Bowe in the team, was at the age of 15. It was the 2011 World Cup warm-up defeat to England, when his dad brought him to the Aviva. “Manu Tuilagi was unbelievable that day and scored a really good try. Not a great experience, but it was brilliant to be there.”
He has only been there once since, for Ulster’s European Cup semi-final win over Edinburgh in April 2012. By then he had just turned 16 and was actually not even on the firsts at Wallace High School.
“After finishing fourth year in school, I was 5’ 5”, and then when I came back in fifth year I was 5’ 11”, and then 6’ 3” by the time I was leaving school.”
“Playing for Ulster was a dream, but that’s just what it was, until I was 17 or 18. Then, three months out of school, I was brought up to the Ulster set-up, and I played a warm-up game. At that point I thought ‘Okay, I might be able to make a career out of this.’ It only started to become a reality then.”
His granddad, Ivan was a winger, and father, Graham, a fullback, who both played with Ballyclare, before his family moved to Ballynahinch, where Stockdale began playing mini rugby at the age of six.
“My mum tells the story that she wanted me to be a pianist, because we didn’t have a pianist in the family, but not long after I was born my granddad came to the house with a rugby ball, so I didn’t have much option.”
Asked up to Ballynahinch RFC by a neighbour in Ballynahinch, thereafter Stockdale never missed a Saturday. So then it had to be a rugby-playing school, where he initially played on the wing, though he also played as a flanker, and briefly after the first growth spurt, in the secondrow, before ending up at centre in his final year.
He tore it up in his final year, when Wallace were beaten by Methody in the semi-finals at Dub Lane, becoming the first player from the school to be crowned Ulster Schools Player of the Year since Chris Henry. He admits he owes his coach at Wallace, Derek Suffern, a big debt of gratitude. “Even in fifth year, I was playing for the thirds and fourths in Wallace. Then in lower sixth I was starting for the firsts. It was pretty ridiculous. It just came out of nowhere. I have to give a lot of credit to Derek, in terms of building my confidence and giving me opportunities. For him to have that belief in me was huge.”
On the back of that campaign, he played for the Irish Schools and Under-18s, and was asked into the Ulster Academy in 2014-15. A broken toe sidelined him for three months before he made his Ireland Under-20s debut away to Scotland, but torn ankle ligaments ended his season.
Couldn’t balance both
A torn groin would also delay his following season by four months. Even so, after a few games with Belfast Harlequins, Stockdale made his Ulster debut at 19 in January 2016 as a replacement away to Benetton Treviso, and made the Ireland Under-20s in the Six Nations and the Junior World Cup in Italy, all of which forced him to abandon his studies in criminology at Jordanstown.
“My dad is a chaplain in Maghaberry prison, so I always had a bit of an interest from talking to him when he came home from work. When I was doing by GCSEs, it was more a focus on criminal law before I realised I probably wasn’t quite smart enough,” he admits, chuckling. “So I went with criminology. I really, really enjoyed it but rugby took over and I just couldn’t balance both of them.”
It’s a subject he intends returning to, perhaps in Open University. He has two sisters, Lydia and Hannah, and credits his mum Janine, who’s a doctor in midwifery, for driving him to every game. His parents never miss an Ulster game.
He’s puzzled himself by his size, as both he and Lydia, who’s 17 and is a rower with the Portadown Rowing Club, are considerably taller than anyone else in the family. “Hannah would be the brains of the operation. She’s got a first in her degree in ‘uni’ and doing well in media design. They sometimes take the mick out of me in the family, saying all I do is chase a ball.”
Still, increasingly, he began to do that rather well. When Nigel Carolan moved Stockdale to fullback for the 2016 Under-20 World Cup, he had a superb tournament, scoring a brace of tries in both the opening win over Wales and the semi-final beating of Argentina, as well as featuring prominently in the historic pool win over New Zealand, before Ireland lost the final to an exceptional England side. James Ryan, Andrew Porter, Max Deegan were among his teammates. “It was easy to score tries in that team,” says Stockdale, “and it was a really brilliant tournament – a lot of fun.”
Les Kiss, along with Neil Doak and now Dwayne Peel, have shown huge faith in Stockdale. Picked for the Pro12 opener last season, Stockdale scored his first Ulster try in the win over the Dragons. From there, he says, things “snowballed”. Indeed, in eight starts and 10 appearances off the bench, he scored nine tries.
Scoring tries for the team he supported as a six-year-old and hearing that Kingspan roar? “There’s few better feelings. It’s a goosebumps moment.”
There’s also a feeling that he’ll revert to fullback, but he’s genuinely not sure which is his best, or favourite, position. “I love playing fullback, I love playing wing and I love playing ‘13’ as well. Coming out of school I thought I was going to be a centre for the rest of my career, but I’ve barely played centre since.”
His versatility, and ability, has meant it’s all come quicker than even he hoped. Within a year of that Under-20 tournament, he was making a try-scoring debut for Ireland away to the USA. He was actually pretty taken aback himself. “I think we’d done two training sessions max when Joe announced the team, and I was starting. I was like ‘Are you sure you meant me?’ Ach, it was an unreal experience.”
The try? “Keith Earls, phenomenal on that tour, threw me an absolute diamond of a pass, and all I had to do was run it in. That was probably the outstanding memory of the game.”
A second cap followed in hot, humid conditions in the second Japanese Test, before he scored in each of his first five starts this season, and, especially in broken play, appears to have struck up a particularly good understanding with Charles Piutau.
“I do kind of think of myself as an intuitive player when I have the ball in my hands,” admits Stockdale, “and I think Charles is the same. Coming from Super Rugby he does run those support lines whenever anybody makes a break, and that’s something I’m learning to do. A lot of it just running off Charles and hoping he does something pretty magical.”
There’s also Trimble, of whom Stockdale says there’s no better defender, and Bowe and his brilliant attacking lines. No better men to learn from either. He’s known to be a highly critical self-analyst. “I probably take things to heart whenever I don’t play well. There’s not many people I want to talk to if I play poorly, but I think to be the player I want to be you have to be critical of yourself.”
No better man than Schmidt to demand work-ons. “Joe demands excellence and that’s what I want to achieve. He’s a brilliant guy to learn from. If you do something wrong, he’ll tell you, and that’s the only way to learn.”
As well as a big left boot and an instinctive awareness of space and the try line, Stockdale runs intelligent lines, is strong in the air, has good feet and is quick. Defensively, he’s inclined to get caught on his heels a tad, and needs to improve his defensive reading. He admits to being more comfortable with the ball than when the opposition have it. “It’s something that I’m learning, and I think I’m learning quite well, but still a lot to work on.”
And now this, his home debut, on his third visit to the Aviva, at 21. His parents, sisters and girlfriend Jessica, who studies chemical engineering, will all be there today.
Living the dream. “At the moment anyway, but it could all come crashing down fairly quick. Ach, I’m incredibly excited, and nervous, but I can’t wait to see what it brings.”
My mum tells the story that she wanted me to be a pianist . . . but not long after I was born my granddad came to the house with a rugby ball, so I didn’t have much option I think we’d done two training sessions max when Joe announced the team, and I was starting. I was like ‘are you sure you meant me?’ Ach, it was an unreal experience
Jacob Stockdale at yesterday’s ■ captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, ahead of his first match for Ireland, on the wing, on home soil. PHOTOGRAPH: BILLY STICKLAND/INPHO