Ris­ing STOCK

Ja­cob Stockdale on find­ing his self-be­lief, why fam­ily and faith are cen­tral to his life... and how his mum fi­nally came around to his tat­too

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE -

Record break­ing Six Na­tions star Ja­cob Stockdale on fam­ily, faith and find­ing his self-be­lief

The rugby star from Lur­gan, who went from promis­ing rookie to Six Na­tions Player of the Championship in his de­but se­nior sea­son and scored a record-break­ing seven tries to help Ire­land win the Grand Slam, talks to Cian Tracey

The tat­too on Ja­cob Stockdale’s right arm is a con­stant re­minder of ev­ery­thing in his life that is im­por­tant to him — fam­ily and re­li­gion. For years, be­fore the record-break­ing Ire­land winger took to the pitch, he would draw a cross on his wrist, along with the ini­tials of his par­ents and two sis­ters. Scrawl­ing words on their tap­ing is a common trend amongst rugby play­ers, who find in­spi­ra­tion in th­ese trig­ger cues — par­tic­u­larly when the go­ing gets tough.

How­ever, two years ago, Stockdale de­cided to have the im­age per­ma­nently inked onto his skin. “I had it there when I was play­ing as a re­minder, but I thought, ‘Why not have it there as a con­stant re­minder?’” he says. The Celtic cross is sur­rounded by the let­ters ‘G’ for his fa­ther, Graeme, and ‘J’ for his mother, Ja­nine, as well as ‘H’ and ‘L’ for his sis­ters, Han­nah and Ly­dia.

Like most North­ern Ir­ish moth­ers, Ja­nine, who works as a lec­turer in mid­wifery, was un­en­thu­si­as­tic about the idea of her teenage son get­ting a tat­too, but Stockdale was adamant it was some­thing he wanted.

“It was (drawn on the tape) pretty much ex­actly as it is on my arm now,” he ex­plains. “Just a wee bit more fancy. Mine was a bit rudi­men­tary. It’s es­sen­tially the ex­act same.

“My mum wasn’t a big sup­porter of me get­ting a tat­too. She was very much like. ‘Ah, you’ll hate it and then you’ll be stuck with it’. But I al­ways knew I wanted to get it. When she saw it, she went, ‘Ah, you know what? I think it’s okay’. She ended up be­ing quite sup­port­ive of it.”

That kind of sup­port from home has been a hall­mark of Stockdale’s up­bring­ing and has played a huge role in him re­main­ing so grounded.

And that’s some­thing he’s go­ing to need after a breath­tak­ing per­for­mance in the last two months, which saw him be­com­ing a Grand Slam cham­pion, record try-scorer in the Six Na­tions and player of the tour­na­ment — all in his de­but sea­son in the championship.

Born in Co Ty­rone, Stockdale and his fam­ily moved around North­ern Ire­land a lot. His fa­ther, Gra­ham, cur­rently works as a chap­lain in the prison ser­vice at Maghaberry and at South­ern Area Hos­pice Ser­vices in Newry but, in his ear­lier days as a Pres­by­te­rian min­is­ter, his line of work took him to sev­eral desti­na­tions across the prov­ince.

They even­tu­ally set­tled in Lur­gan when Stockdale was 15.

“I was born at home in a town called New­town­stew­art,” he says. “We moved to Bal­ly­nahinch, then to Ban­bridge and then fin­ished up in Lur­gan.

“We moved around a good bit. It was fun. I got to meet loads of peo­ple and peo­ple from dif­fer­ent places. I’m prob­a­bly pretty thank­ful for that, to be hon­est, be­cause the friends I have made have lasted a long time.

“The en­tire time I was mov­ing around, I was al­ways go­ing to Wal­lace High School. I had a good group of friends there, which never re­ally changed.

“It was great. I had a re­ally fun child­hood. My mum and dad were re­ally great par­ents and prob­a­bly let me off a wee bit more than they should have.

“We went to church ev­ery week. Chris­tian­ity has been a big part of my life right up un­til now and prob­a­bly will con­tinue to be for the rest of my life.”

By the time the Stock­dales set­tled in Lur­gan, rugby had re­ally taken a hold on Ja­cob. Be­fore that, the pas­sion was there, but his skills were still de­vel­op­ing.

“Rugby was al­ways some­thing that I en­joyed, but it was never an op­tion as a ca­reer path be­cause I wasn’t good enough back then,” he says.

“Up un­til I was 15 or 16, I was play­ing for the Bs and the thirds and fourths in my school team. When I was about 17, rugby kinda just shot off. I had a big growth spurt and that helped an aw­ful lot in terms of be­ing able to break tack­les. Then, when I was big­ger, I got a lit­tle bit more con­fi­dence on the pitch and started to back my­self to be able to at­tack and make tack­les.

“When I was in fifth year, I was play­ing for the thirds. When I came back after the sum­mer, the first game in lower sixth, I started for the firsts and had a re­ally good game. I just thought, ‘This isn’t as hard as I thought it was’.

“Then I re­alised I could ac­tu­ally po­ten­tially be quite a good rugby player. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would make it as far as I have, but that was a turn­ing point for me.

“I got picked for Ul­ster un­der-18s, Ire­land un­der-18s and then the un­der-20s, and it pro­pelled it­self from there.”

Is he one of those play­ers who can eas­ily turn their hand to any sport? “I played a wee bit of cricket when I was younger but, again, I wasn’t very good at it,” he says.

“I also played a bit of football. I just loved play­ing sports and mess­ing about, but rugby was the only one I took par­tic­u­larly se­ri­ously.”

He was also se­ri­ous, how­ever, about mu­sic. Johnny Cash is his idol, and he says that learn­ing the Man in Black’s songs ac­tu­ally helped him along in his rugby ca­reer.

“I have al­ways been a huge ad­mirer of Johnny Cash. I re­mem­ber watch­ing the mov-

I played for B teams but re­alised after a growth spurt that I could be quite good

ie Walk the Line when I was 13. I be­came ob­sessed with his mu­sic.

“I am an okay gui­tarist. I can play gui­tar, banjo and ukulele ... any­thing that I like the sound of and I can get into.

“I’m a big fan of Eric Clap­ton and Bob Dy­lan as well.

“My mum came from quite a mu­si­cal fam­ily. She wanted me to be a pi­anist, not a rugby player. We said that we would meet in the mid­dle, so I’d play gui­tar and play rugby.”

When he be­gan to con­sider pur­su­ing a full­time ca­reer in rugby, it meant sit­ting down for a se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tion with his par­ents.

Though ini­tially keen for him to pur­sue his crim­i­nol­ogy de­gree at the Univer­sity of Ul­ster, Gra­ham and Ja­nine soon re­alised that their son was a spe­cial ta­lent on the rugby pitch.

“At first it was kind of tough,” the winger ad­mits. “It was prob­a­bly tough to be my par­ents be­cause they ba­si­cally saw me throw­ing away my A-lev­els to try and play pro­fes­sional rugby at a level where very few peo­ple get to do that.

“That was a bit frus­trat­ing for them, I’d say. But I think when I was ac­cepted into the Ul­ster Academy, my par­ents re­alised that it was a gen­uine op­por­tu­nity.

“They were sup­port­ive through­out, but that was prob­a­bly the point where they said, ‘Okay, your aca­demic fu­ture can take a bit of a back seat be­cause you can go back and do that at any age, but this is a one-off op­por­tu­nity’.

“I al­ways had their sup­port. They al­ways had a real strong be­lief in me, which was bril­liant for me as a player. But for them to say, ‘Okay, we com­pletely sup­port you not go­ing to univer­sity and putting all your time into rugby’, that was a pretty big thing.”

It was big, too, to get used to hav­ing a pro­fes­sional ath­lete in the fam­ily. “I sup­pose they pinch them­selves like I do be­cause I’m ac­tu­ally do­ing this,” Ja­cob says.

“When­ever peo­ple ask my sis­ters, ‘So, what does your brother do?’, and they say, ‘Pro­fes­sional rugby player’, it’s a bit of a strange thing to say.

“Not many peo­ple can say that about their broth­ers. I think they have found it as weird as I have.

“My dad and my grandad played at school and at club level. Not pro­fes­sional or any­thing. It was just some­thing that was so alien to us a fam­ily — that they could have a son that was a pro­fes­sional rugby player and that was his job. There’s not many of us around and it doesn’t hap­pen very of­ten. I think it would prob­a­bly be the same for ev­ery fam­ily. It’s quite a strange thing to wrap your head around.”

His stud­ies may have been put to the side for now, but Stockdale has a wise head on young shoul­ders and un­der­stands the im­por­tance of hav­ing a good ed­u­ca­tion be­hind him.

“I’m def­i­nitely go­ing to try and get my de­gree done dur­ing rugby,” he in­sists. “There are a lot more op­tions if you have your univer­sity de­gree. It’s worth hav­ing some­thing to fall back on after rugby. It’s vi­tally im­por­tant. You can’t just be a one-trick pony and play rugby your en­tire life. It’s some­thing that I def­i­nitely will get done.”

Since mak­ing his Ul­ster de­but as a 19-yearold, Stockdale’s ca­reer has sky-rock­eted. He was a key fig­ure in the first Ire­land un­der-20s team to beat New Zealand en route to a maiden World Cup fi­nal ap­pear­ance in 2016.

When the call from Joe Sch­midt came, Stockdale made a try-scor­ing se­nior de­but for Ire­land’s win over the USA last sum­mer, but, mis­chie­vously, he had kept his fam­ily guess­ing as to whether or not he made the

Hav­ing a son who’s a rugby player is a strange thing to get your head around

When he sim­ply wrote “bad news” into the fam­ily What­sApp group, his mother’s im­me­di­ate re­sponse was to soften the blow by re­as­sur­ing him that his time would come, be­fore Stockdale even­tu­ally told her the truth.

“It’s prob­a­bly true of my en­tire fam­ily,” he says. “We don’t any­thing too se­ri­ously. We try and have as much of a laugh as we can.”

There’s been plenty for the Stockdale fam­ily to smile about as they fol­lowed Ja­cob to ev­ery match of the Six Na­tions. His girl­friend, Jess, whom he met two years ago while she was study­ing at univer­sity, has been an­other im­por­tant sup­port for the young player.

The tears that were shed by his mother in Twick­en­ham after Stockdale’s first-half try helped Ire­land clinch the Grand Slam were a sign of the jour­ney they have all been on to­gether.

“My mum and dad were at the game and my sis­ters went and watched the game with my un­cle and aun­tie,” he says. “They live over there. My par­ents came to all the home games and then it was just my mum and my sis­ter at the France away game be­cause my dad was at work.”

Of the record-break­ing seven tries that Stockdale scored dur­ing the tour­na­ment, his in­ter­cept try that clinched the win against Wales at the Aviva Sta­dium re­mains his favourite, par­tic­u­larly be­cause he had the chance to savour the mo­ment as he sprinted clear to score with a wide smile on his face.

For some­one who had set a goal for him­self to play in the Six Na­tions by the age of 23, Stockdale has blown even his own ex­pec­ta­tions out of the wa­ter.

“I have al­ways been very goal-driven,” he ad­mits. “I’m lucky that play­ing in the Six Na­tions came ear­lier than ex­pected. I’ve al­ways been a per­son that needs a goal to work to­wards. It’s not dif­fi­cult be­cause as soon as you do one goal, the goal changes. You want to do some­thing else.

“For me, it’s about get­ting bet­ter ev­ery time I go out on the pitch, which means that I don’t have any bother get­ting mo­ti­vated for my next game.

“When I was in­jured in my first year in the Academy, the S&C (strength and con­di­tion­ing) coach said to me, ‘Right, we’re just go­ing to put as much weight on you as you can’, so that was my goal — to be as big, strong and heavy as pos­si­ble and see what would hap­pen. I ended up hav­ing to slim back down again.”

Should he ever need to add bulk again, how­ever, he’ll gladly in­dulge in his cheat meal of choice. “I love a good ke­bab — doner ke­bab with house sauce smeared all over it,” he smiles. Stockdale in­tends to buy his own house in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture, and he also has plans to get an English bull­dog. For now, he’s shar­ing with his Ul­ster team-mates Adam McBur­ney, Mar­cus Rea and Jack Re­gan — and they are reg­u­larly to be found watch­ing The Jeremy Kyle Show. “I love Jeremy Kyle! Prob­a­bly just be­cause it makes me feel a bit bet­ter about my­self! It’s great en­ter­tain­ment.” He has a trip to New York with Jess to look for­ward to but, for now, tele­vi­sion is about the ex­tent of the en­ter­tain­ment he can en­joy — the Grand Slam cel­e­bra­tions were quickly cur­tailed as he was straight back in ac­tion with Ul­ster. “It’s been pretty fun,” he says. “I got back to the ho­tel after the game and was able to chill out and cel­e­brate as a team. Trav­el­ling back to Dublin and get­ting the re­cep­tion that we did com­ing off the plane was spe­cial. “We knew we had an op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing spe­cial — some­thing that hadn’t been done too many times be­fore. That mes­sage that we re­ally needed a big per­for­mance to be able to make his­tory was ham­mered home to us. “The hard­est part now is just try­ing to re­mem­ber all the Ul­ster calls again. The Ire­land calls are just bat­tered into your head so much over the last few months that it is hard to switch back. “I don’t need any mo­ti­va­tion to play for Ul­ster. It’s where I grew up. It’s the team I have al­ways watched and I played for Ul­ster be­fore I played for Ire­land, so I don’t think I’ll have a prob­lem in terms of mo­ti­va­tion.” As the undis­puted man of the mo­ment, more and more peo­ple are go­ing to recog­nise Stockdale when he’s walk­ing the streets of Belfast from now on — some­thing he ac­cepts as part of the job.

“The more suc­cess­ful I am, the more dif­fer­ent my life is prob­a­bly go­ing to get,” he con­cedes. “It’s some­thing that I’m try­ing not to think about much. I just go with the flow. A lot of the time, it de­pends what kind of mood you are in. If you’re in the mood to have a lot of at­ten­tion, then it’s okay.

“It’s some­thing that’s just part and parcel of play­ing rugby. I’m more than happy to take on that re­spon­si­bil­ity. I wouldn’t trade rugby and what I do for a liv­ing for any­thing in the world.”

The more suc­cess­ful I am, the more dif­fer­ent my life is go­ing to get

PIC­TURE: FRANK MCGRATH

TOP OF HIS GAME: Ire­land in­ter­na­tional and Grand Slam win­ner Ja­cob Stockdale. Left, shar­ing a kiss with his girl­friend, Jes­sica Gard­ner, after a Six Na­tions game

RECORD BREAKER: Clock­wise from above left, Ja­cob and girl­friend Jes­sica with the cup after the Grand Slam win; the cou­ple go­ing to an event; and Stockdale scor­ing against Wales at the Aviva Sta­dium. Be­low left, Ja­cob as a teenager at Wal­lace High School

FRANK McGRATH

COOL CUSTOMER: Grand Slam win­ner Ja­cob Stockdale is con­fi­dent he has the per­son­al­ity to han­dle the pres­sures of liv­ing in the spot­light after his swash­buck­ling ad­ven­tures with the Ir­ish team

FAM­ILY AF­FAIR: Ja­cob’s par­ents, Gra­ham and Ja­nine Stockdale, col­lect the Belfast Tele­graph sports award on his be­half from Wil­lie John McBride and Paula Quinn, re­cruit­ment man­ager at Cele­rion. Left, proud sis­ter Ly­dia after the Eng­land game and (far...

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