Tuesday 25 June 2019

'It was more of a challenge that I expected it to be' - Stockdale remains grounded after reaching seventh heaven

Last season’s record try-scorer Jacob Stockdale was in upbeat mood at the Ireland training camp in Maynooth yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Last season’s record try-scorer Jacob Stockdale was in upbeat mood at the Ireland training camp in Maynooth yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Last season he brought us the magnificent seven so what next for Jacob Stockdale?

Perhaps he might become the latest eighth wonder of the Rugby World Cup.

After smashing the Six Nations try-scoring record during Ireland's Grand Slam win in 2018, he may now have his sights set on matching Bryan Habana, Julian Savea and Jonah Lomu, who share the current World Cup tournament individual scoring record with eight tries apiece.

For now though, the world can wait.

England, first in line to trip up the champions, lie in the ever-shortening grass and, despite his relative youth, the player who soars through the air will try to keep his feet on the ground.

It hasn't always been easy.

His heroics last season propelled him not only into the record books but thrust into an unfamiliar and, at times, uncomfortable spotlight.

"It was more of a challenge that I expected it to be," admits Stockdale, whose 14 Irish caps have already brought him 12 tries.

"All of a sudden, people are taking photos in the street and there are paparazzi outside the hotel, which was very strange to me. I wasn't a massive fan of it, to be honest.

"Then again, it's pretty easy to easy to keep your feet on the ground because professional sport moves on so quickly.

"If you hang around and get too caught up in what you've done, you can be left behind.

"Exactly a week after we won the Grand Slam I was playing away in Cardiff for Ulster - and we lost. It's a pretty good way of getting your feet back on the ground. So I don't find it too difficult.

"My parents probably did a pretty good job on it as well. To be honest, I feel I was pretty aware of the fact that I could fall in love with myself so I just tried to make sure that whenever I got back in the Ulster set-up I was working hard.

"I had to make sure I was always playing my best for them. But you always get a few of the older lads taking the p**s out of you a wee bit.

"They try to cut you down like. Rory Best has done plenty of that so he has!"

The extra attention comes on the field as well, with teams ever more aware of his formidable threat, even if neither New Zealand nor Racing 92 could prevent him scoring virtually exact replica tries within a few months of each other either side of Christmas.

"Obviously the more tries you score and the more recognisable you are on the pitch then the more there is a target on your head.

"I'm not naive in the sense that I realise that teams are now starting to look out for me in attack but it's not something that I've noticed massively.

"The tries that we scored against Racing and Leicester were good team tries.

"Part of game when you're not getting the ball is the run lines, trying to pull defenders and drag defenders so you create spaces for other players.

"It's not always going to be me on the end of the try. I wish it was but it's not going to be me every time."

And so, despite last year's record haul, he has not placed undue pressure upon himself to surpass the feat this season.

"I am not expecting to score eight tries this year," he smiles. "For me, it is just about training the best that I can so that I can play the best I can.

"Whenever you are performing well the tries come off the back of that. That is my main focus, making sure I do everything during the week to allow me to perform well at the weekend."

If it sounds boring, well, it probably is to most folk. Not to Stockdale though, for whom the particular thrill is the reliability of producing sustained excellence from a rigorous routine.

"England at home in the Six Nations is not a hard game to get up for, get excited about. That's my process.

"I wouldn't say it is boring. To be honest, I'm incredibly excited about getting stuck into the Six Nations again.

"We did pretty well the last time around, so the boys are excited about getting stuck into another campaign.

"I don't think we will worry ourselves too much about being boring. Obviously, the November series went well. We had some huge performances.

"We were really happy with where we were then. You know, we've been apart now for two months. We're into a new campaign.

"The challenge is getting back into the swing of things, getting back together. We're looking pretty good, pretty sharp in training. We're very excited about it and, hopefully, the fans will be as well."

Most supporters only care about the end product not the means of getting there. "Joe talks about being excellent in every small thing that you do. That doesn't happen by accident.

"We train really well and we try to keep that accuracy in training, so that when it comes into the game, we hold onto the ball.

"Eventually, if you hold onto the ball, teams are going to make mistakes in defence. That's where the opportunities come from.

"That is part of the game-plan, to be really accurate in everything we do and build pressure off the back of it."

Opportunity may knock only briefly against England; it is a fixture that still endures, even for a younger generation who are unfamiliar with an age when the chariot rarely faltered.

This Irish team are not merely robotic beings; they can sense the supporters' sense of anticipation, too.

"This game in particular, it's the opening game of the Six Nations, it's at home and it's against England.

"I don't think the fact we've done well against them over the last couple of seasons really makes a difference.

"You still want to go out and beat them up as best you can I suppose. For me, I'm just really excited to get the Six Nations started.

"It doesn't feel like a year ago since it finished. As soon as it finished last year I remember thinking I couldn't wait for it to start all over again. I'm just dead excited and I can't wait to get started."

And once he does get started, heaven knows when he might finish.

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