I was nicknamed 'The Mountain Goat' - Ireland's Jacob Stockdale opens up on his rise to the top
It was New Year’s Eve, and Jacob Stockdale was in the mood to let his hair down.
The 21 year-old Ulster and Ireland wing had been rested for the Pro 14 match against Munster at Ravenhill the following day and he had travelled to Portrush, the resort town on the beautiful north Antrim coast, with girlfriend Jessica and her family,
The group were sitting in a pub within walking distance of Royal Portrush Golf Club, the venue for next year’s Open Championship, when one of Jessica’s cousins asked Stockdale whether his new-found fame had led to him being stopped for photographs or to sign autographs by fans.
It was an acknowledgement that despite this only being Stockdale’s first full season of professional rugby he is already making quite a name for himself. He scored a try on his Ireland debut against the USA last June, before adding two more in the record victory over South Africa in the Autumn and a further eight in almost as many games for Ulster.
He is one of the most exciting talents in world rugby and as if to illustrate the point it was at that exact moment a stranger asked Stockdale if he could take a picture.
Stockdale – who at 6ft 3ins and 16 stone is not exactly hard to miss – stood up and asked the stranger where he wanted him to stand.
“Then the guy just handed me his camera and asked me to take a picture of his family,” Stockdale recalls. “Everyone at my table burst into laughter and I sat down a bit embarrassed. One thing about life in Northern Ireland is that everyone keeps your feet firmly on the ground.”
For a young player living the dream Stockdale is even more grounded that most. He is on the verge of a first Six Nations start for Ireland as one of the new generation of game-breaking talent that includes his Leinster rival Jordan Larmour, Adam Byrne, Darren Sweetham and Andrew Conway.
His giant frame, coupled with searing acceleration, footballing nous and huge left boot, has helped him create havoc in the best defences across Europe this season, scoring 11 tries for club and country.
Yet he still vividly remembers the day he almost walked away from rugby – because he was too small.
Born in Lurgan to the son of a chaplain in Maghaberry prison, rugby has always been in the family. His father Graham and grandfather Ivan played for Ballyclare and when his family moved to Ballynahinch in Co Down, the four-year-old Stockdale began playing mini-rugby at the local rugby club, Ballynahinch RFC, one of Ulster’s famous rugby nurseries. He was big for his age and his early years were spent in the second row before he moved to the wing aged 11, but by the time he joined Wallace High School in Lisburn he had lost that pyshical advantage.
“By fourth year I was one of the smallest guys in my year,” he recalled. “I was around 5ft 5ins. At around 14 or 15, I stopped going to training because I wasn’t enjoying it. I in the ‘B’ team and didn’t have any interest in it.
“But my coach at Wallace, Derek Suffern, was really influential in encouraging me to come back to training. I can remember coming on in an Under-15 match against Portadown and thinking this is just not for me.”
Even when he went into fifth form (Under-16), he was still playing for his school’s third or fourth XVs. But he grew over a foot in six months before entering the lower sixth – and the rest is history.
“I played every game for the first XV that season and was called up into Ulster and Irish Schools side,” he says.
Remarkably, within five years he had made his Ireland debut. He followed the traditional route, playing for Ireland’s Under-20s side as they defeated the All Blacks in the World Championships in 2016 before graduating to the senior side.
Having made his international debut with Ireland last summer, Ulster insiders were hugely impressed at how he returned to the provincial squad this season. There was no sense of a ‘big-time Charlie’ attitude.
“I made the mistake when I came back from my first junior World Cup of not doing enough training and we did a prowler session in the glaring heat and every muscle in my body cramped that day,” Stockdale recalled.
“So last summer in my last week of my time off I did a three or four sessions, a couple of gym sessions, some high-speed running and a fitness session and I just felt a 100 times better going back into the pre-season.
“We did this training session on the sand dunes at Portrush. There were three cones, at 25ft, 50ft and 75ft and we did 10 different things – first cone back, second cone, third cone and back and then third cone back again. I couldn’t feel my legs and when I got to the bottom I just collapsed to the floor.
“There was a picture of me about 15 metres ahead of everyone else I was nicknamed ‘The Mountain Goat’.
“Knowing that I am on the team-sheet has made a big difference. Now I focus on my game and how I prepare during the week. Getting more experience also makes it more enjoyable.”
One suspects a big Six Nations tournament for Stockdale will ensure everyone wants his photograph after all.