How Jacob Stockdale took the power away from online trolls
It all got a bit much and, for some, went grotesquely too far.
Jacob Stockdale recalls a moment in 2018, some time between Ireland's Grand Slam and defeating the All Blacks on home soil for the first time, when Rory Best offered him some prescient words.
Best, his captain at Ulster and Ireland, had followed Stockdale's rise from years before he ever made his senior debut. He was a talented back earmarked for success and the province were in need of someone with his attacking spark. Ireland too.
He impressed for Ireland U20s, slipped into senior rugby with effortless ease and scored a try on his Test debut for Joe Schmidt's Ireland. It was the summer of 2017 and Ireland's future was already here.
Stockdale excelled in that year's Guinness Series, against South Africa and Argentina, and then went off on one in the 2018 Guinness Six Nations as Ireland marched to Grand Slam glory. There were tries in big European games for Ulster, a winning tour to Australia and that November 2018 victory over New Zealand. Stockdale's try in that game was his 12th in 14 international games.
Best, who was finishing up with Ulster at the end of 2018/19, grabbed a moment with Stockdale to impart from advice. On the latest House of Rugby episode, Stockdale told Andrew Trimble and Barry Murphy:
"I remember Rory Best telling me, 'Don't read anything about yourself'. That was just after the 2018 Six Nations.
"At that point, I was like, 'Besty, I'm going to read stuff about myself because it's all good at the moment!' But it's whenever everything isn't great every single time you step out on the pitch, that's when it starts to affect you. My advice would now be the same as Rory's was for me - don't read anything, and do that from the start so you don't have to figure this out when you're three or four years into your career."
Within a year of that Dublin win over New Zealand, Stockdale and Ireland were left reeling. Neither approached the World Cup in top form and a defeat to Japan in their second pool game shattered their already brittle confidence.
Ireland reached the knock-out stages but went no further than that. New Zealand avenged that Dublin loss, and then some. Stockdale had a game to forget. He was not the only one, but that did little to ease the hurt.
The majority of the Irish squad had a week off and then returned home. Three weeks after that game at Tokyo Stadium, Stockdale was back in Ulster whites and lining out at Thomond Park. Logging onto Twitter, after that game, was a deeply wounding experience.
"I suppose few people may have noticed," he says, "as I didn't tweet all that often but it was directly after the World Cup and a Munster game we played.
"When the game finished, and before I even texted my friends and family; my girlfriend; I went on Twitter to see what everyone was saying about me. I remembering thinking, 'This is incredibly unhealthy' and I just deleted the app off my phone. I hadn't planned on doing it permanently. I just figured that I needed a bit of a break from it. But I haven't been on it, now, around seven or eight months and, to be honest, I'm not planning on going back on it any time soon.
"It obviously varied massively. You'd get the classic Twitter trolls that would be tweeting you horrible stuff like 'Kill yourself'. Really, really offensive stuff. Weirdly enough, those didn't bother me that much because I knew they were just saying this stuff to get a reaction. It probably wasn't their actual opinion. They were out there trying to get a bite out of me.
"It was more the ones were it was a person's genuine opinion that I was a crap rugby player. Those were the ones that would really get to me, weirdly enough. They just ranged from people saying I didn't have a good game, to others saying I shouldn't be playing for Ulster or Ireland. Others would be saying how they were tired of me doing this or that.
"Nine times out of 10, I'd tell myself that they don't know what I know and that their opinion isn't right, but when you're reading these tweets over and over and over again, you start to create a narrative in your head that they'll actually right. It wasn't a healthy thing to be doing, and it wasn't a healthy place to be."
Leaving Twitter does not mean he has quit social media entirely but he says most of his searches and posts that interest him are either rugby or car-related. He has taken to restoring a classic Ford Mustang during the Covid-19-enforced break in the rugby season while also finding time for those close to him, and to help some fund-raising drives.
As a Maxol brand ambassador, Jacob Stockdale has helped launch the Phone A Friend fundraising campaign for mental health charity, Aware.
"Aware came and explained to me exactly what they were doing and I thought it was a brilliant opportunity to get involved. They are running the Phone A Friend campaign. During lockdown, with people isolating and by themselves, it can be a tough time for a lot of people, especially those that have been living with underlying mental health conditions.
"So it's an opportunity to reach out to a friend or someone you know. Those 5, 10 or 15 minutes might make their day. Then, after you make that phone call, donate to Aware by texting 'Phone A Friend' to 50300, and you donate €4. It's a really worthwhile cause as Aware are struggling right now, because fundraising events and drives have been cancelled."
With his dog barking in the background and eager for a walk, Stockdale finishes up by expressing how keen he is to get back playing rugby, whenever the all-clear is given, later in the summer. The Ulster players are using the next few weeks as down-time before they launch into a second 2019/20 pre-season.
"If it wasn't for talking the dog for a walk," he jokes, "I wouldn't get up until midday!"
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Ulster and Ireland winger Jacob Stockdale joins Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble for the latest House of Rugby episode. Jacob talks openly about some vile abuse he received online after Ireland's World Cup exit. He also speaks about rugby's return and his Lions ambitions.