For Ulster and Ireland
By Stuart Weir
Jacob Stockdale is a rising star in Irish Rugby. Aged 24, he already has thirty caps to his name, and rugby is in his blood. His father and grandfather played, and he told me: ‘I started playing mini rugby when I was about four or five and I have never stopped playing!’ He progressed from a local club to professional rugby with Ulster. It was all a smooth and easy progression: ‘When I signed for Ulster I went into the academy. In terms of helping people to transition from school into senior rugby, the academy is pretty perfect. You learn how to be a professional athlete, how to gym properly, how to eat properly and that sort of thing. They certainly give you every opportunity so that you’re definitely ready to play senior rugby when the opportunity arises.’
The smooth progression continued when he was given his first cap for Ireland in 2017, in New York of all places. His main memory of the game is a surprising one: ‘The one thing that absolutely stands out is that it was absolutely roasting. I don’t think I have ever been so warm in a game in my life. Another memory is getting to score my try, which was pretty cool. The try came from brilliant play by Keith Earls who made a line break and gave me a class pass and all I had to do was sprint into the corner to finish it off. So certainly one of the easier tries I’ve scored.’ At the time of writing he has an interesting record – when he scores, Ireland always win! That stat surprised him: ‘I wasn’t aware of that. I didn’t think I was that important to the team but obviously I am!’
A few months later he played for Ireland against South Africa, one of the powers of world rugby, three times World Cup winners, but that day Ireland won 38-3. ‘The South Africa match was my first ever game for Ireland in Dublin. It was a really good win, although at that point South Africa weren’t playing that well, while we were on the up and coming into some good form. I would say that I started the South Africa game pretty quietly but finished it off strongly but it was great to be involved and to score.’
The following spring Stockdale was involved in the Six Nations for the first time. Ireland were unbeatable, becoming Six Nations Champions with a Grand Slam (winning all five games) and therefore also winning the Triple Crown (by beating England, Scotland and Wales). Stockdale was chosen as ‘Player of the championship’ following his two tries against Italy, two against Wales, two against Scotland and one against England. His own assessment of that season is very modest and self-effacing: ‘The 2018 Six Nations was a big year for me, and I suppose breaking the try-scoring record for the Six Nations was the thing that everyone looked at and made everyone take note. But looking back, I also want to say that I was in a team which was playing brilliant rugby, and they put me in for a lot of tries which probably made me look better than I actually am. Especially as a winger, how many tries you score often depends on how well the guys inside of you, the outside half and the centres, are playing. And in 2018, they were playing incredible rugby which made my job a lot easier. I certainly had my fair share of poor games that season but as a winger, even when you’re not playing well, if you are still scoring tries there are still going to be headlines about you. There were games when I didn’t think I had a very good match but I was lucky enough to get over for a try and then everyone forgets that you didn’t play that well.’ Another career highlight was scoring against New Zealand, the reigning World Cup holders, and a team Ireland had never beaten in Dublin, not until November 2018. Stockdale got the ball in space, kicked ahead, and won the race to his perfectly weighted kick to touch down. He regards that as his favourite try ‘because of how important it was for the team. It enabled us to beat New Zealand at home; something we had never done before which was really cool.’ He adds ‘The New Zealand game was really something special, probably one the most enjoyable games I have ever played in, from start to finish and I’ve never really experienced an atmosphere quite like it.’ Ireland won 16-9.
Jacob Stockdale’s dad was a church minister, so he ‘grew up in a very Christian home, always around the church.’ He accepted his parents’ faith and as an adult his Christian faith continues to be central. ‘Growing up with that kind of childhood, it made sense to me and I knew about Christianity. I always kept my faith. I believe that God created this earth and His Son Jesus died for our sins and because of that we’re forgiven and have eternal life. For me it’s pretty awesome to know that and it gives me security.’
Rugby can be very physical and I wondered if there were any conflicts for him between loving his neighbour and smashing him! ‘No, I’ve never really found that. Rugby is a game that prides itself on respect, the idea that you can beat the hell out of each other for 80 minutes and afterwards you can go and have a chat and a beer together. That respect among players has always been part of the appeal for me of rugby which you don’t get with some other sports and which fits in perfectly with my faith. Of course, sometimes you do lose it a bit, because as humans we’re not perfect and we do make mistakes. And if you have had a bit of a scrap with somebody, you always go and make amends and apologise afterwards. That’s such a big part of the sport, that’s why I love it so much.’
He added that following Jesus ‘makes quite a difference for my rugby, especially when you’re not playing well or have made mistakes because you are in the public eye. It can be really tough to deal with that. And for me it’s really nice to have someone I can turn to and talk to and give Him the problems and God helps me deal with that. So, it’s a source of comfort that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have my faith.’
The only blot on his landscape was the 2019 World Cup. In 2018 Ireland had proved themselves to be the best team in Europe, not to mention that win over New Zealand, but in the World Cup they lost to Japan and New Zealand. Stockdale’s assessment is blunt and to the point: ‘The World Cup was largely disappointing. Obviously, we’d had a fantastic year in 2018 and leading into the World Cup, you would have thought we were in a very good place but I suppose things started to go wrong. It was a very similar team but we didn’t perform in the way we had in the Six Nations and the November series before. So, the feeling we had coming away from it was disappointment because we know how good a team we are, we just didn’t bring it to the fore.’
He still plays his club rugby for Ulster and loves it: ‘Ravenhill, Kingspan is a brilliant place to play rugby. The atmosphere is class, especially on a Friday night. We have very loyal fans and not just loyal but passionate as well. They create a lot of noise which gets you excited to play in front of. We train generally four times a week – that is Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. So, if we play on a Friday night, we only get three training sessions. If we play Saturday, we get the extra session on Friday. It is a pretty busy week. We usually only spend 90 minutes on the pitch. But as well as that, we would be busy with meetings to review the past game and to preview the game to come. We have one gym session a day and other wee skill-based things that we do indoors. We can be in from 7.30am to 4.30pm on a long day, but only on the pitch for 90 minutes.’
Away from rugby, he has a number of interests. He likes to walk his dog – Lila, a Hungarian vizsla. ‘I like to be quite outdoorsy when I can’, he continues. ‘My girlfriend bought me a tent for Christmas, and I want to try to make some use of that. I’m quite into Lego as well. I find that I can take three or four hours building something and completely switch off with it. I have an old Mustang and I am currently trying to rebuild that and put new parts into it and make it into a daily driver.’
He has achieved a great deal so far in a short career, but one feels there is a lot more still to come for Ulster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions.