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

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Thorn­ley:

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.”

Un­be­liev­able

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.”

Ver­sa­til­ity

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

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