Sunday 16 June 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Ruthless Jacob Stockdale shows no doubts to earn place in history'

After Read reprieve, Ulster winger underlines deadly finishing credentials to make it 12 tries from his first 14 Tests

Jacob Stockdale. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images
Jacob Stockdale. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The boy in Jacob Stockdale is eternal, a human breeze forever scrambling over orchard walls, climbing trees, giggling about a classmate's attack of wind.

His florid, toothy grin communicates none of the gravity around him. He violates all the modern Commandments about sports people needing to frown like magistrates, talk like economists. After all, Stockdale celebrates a try by sticking out his tongue at the world.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

If he plays on a razor's edge, it's without any traceable understanding of how cruel this life can be.

Just short of 11 on Saturday evening, the IRFU media man took to rationing access to Jacob for fear he'd miss his dinner. So the solitary try-scorer of one of the greatest Test matches maybe ever seen in Dublin found himself roped down to "the sharpest three and half minutes you can find".

The only time all evening he looked cornered.

He is a square-shouldered 6'4", 16-stone bear from Lisburn, whose knees could still be scuffed from the schoolyard. That's how it feels with Stockdale. He's scored 12 tries in 14 Tests now, figures that must seem nursery rhyme stuff to generations of Irish wingers left so peripheral to business that they could have brought their schoolwork.

Stockdale (right) is, maybe, the embodiment of how Joe Schmidt builds not just teams, but people.

When Ireland beat the All-Blacks in Chicago two years back, he was at home, "still in the Ulster Academy", a fan watching history unspool in a distant world. A boy with promise, they were saying in Ulster. Someone whose high-kneed, buckity stride could carry him ten metres a second. Yet one who could be "exposed" defensively too.

And now?

Stockdale may just be the most ruthless finisher in Northern Hemisphere rugby. For, if Schmidt's hand was all over Saturday's 48th-minute try, the left-wing still had a small ocean to cross before tobogganing over, Aaron Smith and Damian McKenzie hanging out of him like bouncers caught off guard.

Just four minutes earlier, he'd tried an imprudent chip-kick over All Blacks captain, Kieran Read, and - well - endured that split-second terror of the smoker who smells gas. What was rolling through his mind at the moment of Read's intercept? "I just screamed 'Drop it!'" he beamed in recall, acknowledging he'd been granted fragile clemency on the back of a giant's fumble.

"He must have been listening to me!"

And you know how boys are. They forget danger soon as it passes. When Jonathan Sexton then called a move to the blindside off a lineout and Bundee Aki's pass arrived into Stockdale's chest, the kid's spirit became a rush of wind in a bank vault. Suddenly all those hulks in black, those ruthless, hard-boiled pragmatists so determined to have Irish romantics stuffed and mounted on a mantelpiece, were scrambling.

You'd think the Read moment might have annulled his brazenness, but Stockdale's kick and chase knifed a great gash in the All Blacks defence now that would clear the game of its confusion. Because the try, converted by Sexton, had a value far beyond just seven points. In a game of inches, Ireland had stolen a yard.

So, had Stockdale, for even a split second, baulked at the gamble of kicking again so soon?

"No, absolutely not," he stressed, turning momentarily stern. "For me, it was just I saw Ben Smith had come up on the edge to defend Bestie and I saw the space in behind. It was a slightly different kick, a longer kick to chase on to. I was just playing in the moment.

"I can't take too much of the credit. You know, that's a training ground move and it paid off massively. Bundee gave me a great pass, I didn't have to reach for it or anything. Those are the kind of situations that, as a winger, you want to be in 24/7."

So a planned move won an epic Test, the stadium swaying afterwards to U2's 'Beautiful Day'. And it had been. Rugby dabbles a lot in euphemism and there'd been a blizzard of the stuff unleashed the last time the All Blacks came to Dublin. They played "borderline" rugby that day, we were told.

Top link to voting page

To the naked eye, it was violent.

The defeat in Chicago rattled their cage and it was clear they'd come here with unambiguous intent. The day left a bad taste; muggings always do. But the real sting came from a sense that rugby had again shown little appetite for policing the line between a tackle and an assault. The brutal edge the All Blacks played with passed without sanction or even words of disquiet from the Irish.

If their cynicism is never entirely decommissioned (nine penalties conceded to Ireland's two in Saturday's first-half), New Zealand did, at least, desist from the uglier stuff this time.

And it should be said that, for men so little accustomed to losing, they were uniformly gracious when it was over. None more so than the lugubrious Steve Hansen, declaring flatly: "We were just beaten by a better team."

That won't have been easy given the circumstance. Because the notion of the two top-ranked teams in the world playing a November 'friendly' one year out from a World Cup isn't a million miles removed from proposing a bear-knuckle fight without malice.

And, inevitably, there was a Hitchcock dimension to how it ended. The sense of something grisly looming. Of the air about to be punctured.

Teasing

That's the nature of our relationship with the All Blacks. Until Chicago, Ireland had been trying unsuccessfully to figure out a way to beat them since around the time Thomas Edison was teasing out his idea for electric light. Now we've beaten them twice in three meetings. And Stockdale? He's nailed them with his first shot.

"It means everything," he grinned. "You know, there's 113 years of guys who have played in Lansdowne Road or the Aviva and have failed to beat them, so for me to do it at my first attempt is really special. Part of me can't believe how the last year and a half has gone. It's been an incredible road to where I am at the moment.

"At the same time, there's been an awful lot of lessons learned as well and I suppose that's what it takes to progress in international rugby. It's been a massive year and a half for me and I don't plan on stopping any time soon."

With that, he was away into the giddy darkness, Rieko Ioane's jersey in his kit-bag and a whole new world of admirers waiting to shake his giant hand.

His life's journey still only just beginning, somebody asked Jacob Stockdale if, maybe, they'd shattered the All Blacks' aura now?

"I dunno, guess we'll find out!" he answered wisely.

Irish Independent

The Throw-In: Galway deliver when needed, the rise of Leinster hurling and Mickey Harte’s dilemma

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport