You know Ulster really rate Jacob Stockdale the moment Les Kiss starts with ‘Jacob is going well’ before listing off multiple things he needs to work on.
The province know they have a potential gem on their hands but they want to keep him as grounded as possible.
“Last year was interesting for him,” Kiss tells me. “There were a few moments when he got exposed… He has come a long road. I do think he has been rusty but he has had effective moments. There are a few areas he knows he has to be better at, and he is learning those things along the way.
“He does some good things that really makes an impact and that is what he is doing at the moment, but we do have a couple of things he knows he has to work on. He has to put his head down. He is a good lad.”
As the Ulster Director of Rugby [and former Ireland assistant coach] talks about Stockdale, the 21-year-old winger is out in the stands of the Kingspan Stadium posing for pictures that will show up online and in newspapers over the coming days. His mum and his sister will keep an eye out and add them to a scrapbook that is already cramped for space.
I catch up with Stockdale not long after he has faced the press and shared a great story about teasing his mum just two days out from his Ireland debut. ‘Bad news’, he typed into the Stockdale family WhatsApp group.
She responded, as mothers do, with a long, supportive passage and told him his chance would come. ‘It’s alright mum,” he replied, ‘I actually got picked!’
Stockdale is 26 games into his professional rugby career but already looks at home. He has gone from, two years ago, cheering on Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble in these same stands to sharing the Ravenhill pitch with them and trading jokes after training when Kiss, Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel run their rumps off.
Two tries have come in his first two outings of the new season. Along with his score in the corner 14 minutes into his Ireland debut, that’s three in four games for the Lisburn native. The scrapbook has had frequent entries in recent months but Stockdale can still recall his first appearance in a newspaper cutting.
“It was after we [Wallace High School] beat Ballymena in a Schools Cup game. I scored two tries and they had some sort of play on words with Stockdale – I can’t quite remember what it was – but it was a very weird experience, seeing your name in the newspaper.”
From 2013 on, Stockdale’s name was on the radar. He played for Ireland U18 Schools and impressed provincial and national coaches.
There is a certain satisfaction in seeing a talented young player in schools or club action and making note of their name before most everyone else. Jonathan Bradley of The Belfast Telegraph underlined Stockdale’s name a couple of times after witnessing him fight a rear-guard action against Methodist College in the 2014 Ulster Schools Cup semi final.
Stockdale played outside centre that day and grabbed his team a try but it was one young man raging against a much superior outfit. Methodist marched on, and won the final, but the young Lisburn native had made an impression. It would not be long before he was lining out for his senior Ulster debut.
‘I was far too heavy’
Stockdale has ended up exactly where he wanted to be. Where his father and grandfather once dreamed of him being. A rugby ball was placed in his cot not long after his birth and has never been too far away ever since. Rugby is in the Stockdale blood.
“My dad and my granddad both played,” he says, “and they’re rugby crazy. My mum tells this story that my dad was late to my sister’s birth because he was down in the waiting room watching a Sevens tournament that was on. He’s rugby mad and had me playing minis rugby from when I was four or five.”
Stockdale and his father were regular visitors to Ravenhill and made the odd trip down to Dublin to see Ireland play. His first Ireland game at the Aviva Stadium was the 2011 World Cup warm-up game that Manu Tuilagi stamped himself all over.
He won Schools Player of the Season Award and started a criminology degree in university but postponed it after getting call-ups to Ireland U20s and the Ulster senior squad. He admits he was guilty of making the same mistake as many young lads dropped into a man’s world.
“In my first year out of school, I put on about 14 or 15 kilos [approximately two stone]. So I went from 93 kilos to about 107 and I was far too heavy at that point. I had to strip back a wee bit.”
Stockdale is 6-foot-4 and has been blessed with a big frame since he started at Wallace. Smarter now about his best weight, he came into 2017/18 around 103 kilos and will most likely shed a kilo or two over the course of the season.
“You get situations,” says Ulster strength and conditioning coach Jonny Davis, “where it just clicks with someone.
“You’ve mentioned that Jacob is a physical specimen but there is that raw talent there. There’s the raw ingredients too, so to speak, as he’s 6-foot-4, 15-stone and he can run at 9.9 metres per second. As a finisher or someone playing as an outside back, you want that.”
A couple of months after his 19th birthday and Stockdale was playing alongside Joey Carbery, Garry Ringrose and Andrew Porter at the Junior World Championships. No sooner was he back than he was in preseason training with Ulster and, in his first senior outing, meeting up with Isa Nacewa…
Welcome to the big time.
Stockdale played six times for Ulster in his first season with the senior squad – missing most of the 2016 Six Nations with Ireland U20. He returned, though, for his second U20s stint at the Junior World Championship and helped Ireland defeat New Zealand on their way to the final.
Plating at fullback, his pace, power and deft footwork were outstanding. He scored a superb try against Argentina in the semis and his break for Shane Daly’s try, in the final against England, was a joy to watch. That was about as good as it got as England won 45-21.
2016/17 was everything Stockdale could have hoped for. He made 18 appearances for Ulster [eight starts] and scored nine tries, including a brace against Glasgow and another against eventual champions Scarlets. An Ireland call-up followed and he played two times on the 2017 summer tour, against the USA and Japan.
He would have been forgiven for believing he had made it but Kiss only saw a young man that wanted to work even harder.
“One of the things that was impressive,” says Kiss, “is that he came in on the off-season having been on a tour with the national team, when his first Irish jersey arrived, and he was in really good nick.”
Stockdale admits there were a few nights of celebrating but a trip to Carton House and another Ireland camp, in August, quickly focused the mind.
“You can kind of take a week, maybe two, off. You get four weeks off after a season but in the second two weeks, you have to get back into a bit of training. I learned my lesson, so I did, two seasons ago. I came back for preseason without doing that training and it wasn’t worth the fun.”
He adds, “The summer tour was awesome and I really, really enjoyed it – it was a privilege to be part of – but at the same time you’re thinking ‘This guy is not here. He’s still not here. He’s not here… ‘ so going down to that camp it was like, ‘This is where it gets serious. This is the proper Ireland team. Everybody is here’.”
Not in the door a wet week and he was already sizing up the competition, newly returned Lions and all. It’s exactly how you’d want a young pretender to be.
Having grown up idolising Brian O’Driscoll, Stockdale had the surreal experience of helping Ireland’s greatest ever player to promote our World Cup 2023 bid. A week after Ireland beat the All Blacks at Soldier Field, he stood on the Aviva Stadium pitch with O’Driscoll and then Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
On meeting his rugby hero, he says:
“Me and Bill Johnston, the Munster out-half, went down there for it. I got there a wee bit late and, when I got there, Bill and Brian where already talking. I just saw Bill and thought, ‘Right, there’s nobody here I know except Bill’ so I wandered over.
“I get there and look and I’m like, ‘Ahh, that’s Brian O’Driscoll, so it is’.
“He was like, ‘Hi Jacob’. We had a wee chat but it was kind of weird mingling with the legends of Irish rugby.”
Those two words stayed with him for a long time after that. Hi Jacob.
Brian O’Driscoll knew who he was.
He may be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara but there are trade-offs. There always are.
21-years-old but tucked up in bed long before midnight, most nights, Stockdale finds he is often catching up on his friends’ adventures via Snapchat and WhatsApp as he heads off for an early morning training session.
“There is a bit of jealousy, especially when all your mates are students and they’re going out having fun and living the life of it, while you’re sitting there having to get to bed at 10:30 because you’re in training tomorrow.
“You kind of joke and say, ‘Oh I’m jealous of you boys’, but it’s hard to be jealous when you’re doing the thing that you love every day and every week.”