Wednesday 16 October 2019

'I don't know if Joe wants me to play full-back'

Ulster wing Jacob Stockdale at the launch of Maxol’s ambassador programme with Walter, a basset hound from Munster. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Ulster wing Jacob Stockdale at the launch of Maxol’s ambassador programme with Walter, a basset hound from Munster. Photo: Brian McEvoy
David Kelly

David Kelly

Jacob Stockdale can measure his life out in World Cup cycles. Except he never thought he himself might feature in one.

In 2007, an 11-year-old kid watched France shock New Zealand in a rope-a-dope Cardiff quarter-final.

But he didn't really know what to make of it all because he didn't yet know what to make of rugby. The bug hadn't bitten him, yet.

"I didn't really appreciate what a big deal it all was," he recalls of that seismic day in the Welsh capital.

Four years on, though, the nascent star had begun to rise, a growth spurt matching his enthusiasm for the sport.

"I watched those games at home flat out. In New Zealand, when the games were on at 4.0am, 7.0am and 11.0am, I'd be up and ready at 4.0am, watching all three pool matches.

"I was probably a bit of a zombie going into school at the time, although that probably was no different to any other time!

"I'd watch Namibia-Georgia even. I've always been a massive rugby fan, I guess. It's just that I was pretty useless at it for a while."

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Aligned

Move on an another four years and the kid who got the game was getting games for Ulster while the provincial stars were away; suddenly for him, his stars aligned as he made his baby steps with his home province.

"It was massive for me," he recalls. "Whenever players go away for the World Cup, they're gone for four months and it is a real opportunity for younger guys to come up through.

"I was incredibly lucky to be given that opportunity by Les Kiss. I felt like that opportunity, along with a fair bit of hard work from myself, meant I was able to stay in the team and keep pushing forward which was great.

"While it's obviously massive for someone like myself who is going to a World Cup now, it's also the same for those who are also hoping to make a name for themselves in the future."

For Stockdale, the past and future is the present. Rugby World Cup 2019 could be his and Ireland's opportunity to shine, restoring some semblance of the outfit that dominated 2018, rather than the stuttering 2019 model.

"It is pressure, but I think we put that on ourselves. We want to go into the World Cup expecting to at least get to a semi-final, if not win it.

"If you go expecting to only hope for a quarter, you're only going to get to a quarter or fall short of that. Maybe that's just me, maybe I'm overconfident.

"But I've always found that the more I tell myself that I'm going to do something, the more I end up doing it. I think it's incredibly important to have a positive mindset.

"Above all else, I'm just really excited to get to go over and play in a World Cup. If we don't win it, we don't. But there's no point in going over and just hoping to do well."

Stockdale was one of the big number announced in yesterday's preliminary squad as Ireland prepare for a mid-June summit.

One of the gambits that may be unveiled in the warm-up games this summer could be an outing at full-back, one briefly entertained at Ulster this season and, with versatility the key to a World Cup selection, the 2018 record try-scorer in the Six Nations might get a stint in the 15 shirt.

"I'd be excited about it," he admits. "I don't know if Joe (Schmidt) has any interest in me playing there, but if he wanted me to, I'd be delighted to.

Opportunity

"I enjoy playing there. It's been a while so I was out of position a few times when we played Glasgow in the PRO14 semi-final but that comes with playing games.

"The warm-up games are a perfect opportunity but if Joe wants me to play wing and only wing, I'll play wing. I want to do whatever helps the team and play wherever the coaches think I'm best suited."

Stockdale, while eager to try out new positions, is mindful of the dangers inherent in that process, as can be readily testified by the early careers of Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald, who both confessed to the perils of being shunted around the three-quarters.

"I don't want to ring-fence myself," he begins to demur. "If the opportunity comes up to play 15 and a team wants me to play 15 and I say, 'no, look, I'm a winger'? That's not what you want.

"But also you don't want to be playing 13 one week, wing the next, left wing, right wing the next week and full-back the next week and moving about in that sense because it can be pretty difficult, so it's about finding that balance where you are playing."

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