Thursday 17 January 2019

Jacob's ladder accelerating him to Six Nations heaven

Of his intercept try against Wales, Jacob Stockdale says: ‘It’s more afterwards you realise that it could have gone very wrong’. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Of his intercept try against Wales, Jacob Stockdale says: ‘It’s more afterwards you realise that it could have gone very wrong’. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ivan Stockdale was 13 years old when Jack Kyle helped Ireland win their first Grand Slam in 1948.

Sixty-one years later, his grandson Jacob was the same age and together they cheered as fellow Ulsterman Tommy Bowe's try turned the tide towards the second such feat in Irish rugby history.

Last weekend, as Ireland moved one step closer to only their third championship clean sweep, all three generations of the Stockdale family were in Dublin to witness this latest assault on a momentous achievement.

Jacob, though, was the star of the show, maintaining an almost incredulous scoring streak, watched on by his father, Graham, and Ivan.

None of them could have comprehended that their family would be central to another epoch-making moment; it seems like only yesterday that the rugby-obsessed child hurtled from his couch in elation as Ireland sealed the sweetest of successes in Cardiff nine years ago.

"We were in the house in Banbridge with all the family," says the 21-year-old, still seemingly utterly unaffected by the hype generated by his remarkable scoring exploits.


"My uncle and granddad were there that day as well. That was Stephen Jones' penalty? Yeah, the house went crazy..."

It seems poignant that Bowe should retire on the cusp of what could have been his second Slam; Stockdale has assumed the Monaghan man's scoring touch in his absence and there seems to be no limit to what he may achieve.

Already, Brian O'Driscoll's record of 46 tries seems readily attainable; Stockdale has nabbed 10 in just eight appearances.

With six in this championship, just one more touchdown would mark a seasonal record, pulling him clear of Will Greenwood (2001), Shane Williams (2008) and Chris Ashton (2011).

His double against Scotland saw him become the first multiple try-scorer in three successive matches since 1914.

Unlike an awe-struck public, Stockdale, so representative of the startlingly self-aware new breed of rugby player, takes it all in his stride.

"To a certain extent, it's weird to realise I'm at this level now and playing regularly in the Six Nations.

"I mean, if you told me that a year ago, I wouldn't have believed it. On the other hand, I've worked really hard to get where I am, putting in good performances for Ulster and Ireland U-20s, stuff like that.

"So I feel like I have built towards it. But I'm pretty pleased at how it has accelerated more than I expected."

He has featured in almost identical twin totemic moments in this campaign, those aerial thefts and gleeful gambols after snatching attempted miracle passes from Peter Horne against Scotland and, most thrillingly, the final-minute swoop to conquer Wales.

"It's probably a mixture of 'thank goodness' and 'I better catch this now!' There's probably not too much running through your head at that stage because it's instinctive," he says of moments that almost happen in a blur yet seem to occur as if freeze-framed for posterity.

"I wish time did slow down, that would make it a bit easier, but it's split-second stuff - you just have to be able to catch it and go.

"It's more afterwards when you touch down and realise 'that could have gone very wrong!' To be honest, it's just instinctive and whenever you get the ball, the next thing in your head is getting to the tryline."

His try against Scotland, a bit like that against Wales, was fuelled by defensive ardour.

"I was just trying to stay as connected as I could with Garry Ringrose. Garry did really well to take Huw Jones as he was coming on to the ball and I saw Horne was maybe looking for that longer pass.

"To be honest, for me, I was trying to get myself into the best defensive position that I could so that if he threw a really great pass, I could still get out to Blair Kinghorn and if not, I was able to pick it off.

"That's what I'm trying to do every time, to get myself into a position where I can defend in each direction. Luckily, he didn't throw the best pass in the world and I was able to pick it off.

"Against Wales, it was quite similar in the sense that I had got myself into a good position defensively. I felt like if he'd thrown a long ball, I could have kind of veered off and been able to defend the guys out wide.

"Andy Farrell says that if you are 100pc you go for it. You don't go for it if you are 99pc, 98pc. I felt I was 100pc committed."


The perfect game still eludes him but his imperfections are what thrill the audience.

"I'm still learning. It's not necessarily going, 'Oh, I made a mistake there'. It's more, 'I made a mistake there, how can I learn from that?' It's about making sure that mistake doesn't happen again next week.

"I would be obsessed by perfection. Every player on the pitch is chasing the perfect game. You're going out saying, 'I want a 100pc game here'.

"If you don't chase 100pc, you're chasing 80pc and you might get 60pc. For me, it's going out and having the very best game I can."

His grandfather handed him his first rugby ball when he was four and he hasn't stopped running since.

His father is a minister, currently working in a hospice - and that saw him move home many times during his youth.

"I know a lot of people in Northern Ireland, so I do."

The rest of the country, and beyond, know him now, too.

Irish Independent

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