Jacob’s snakes and ladders – Stockdale determined to put past falls behind him and climb back to the big time
n the past, he’s spoken about how his faith endures throughout his time on the pitch and, as he makes his way from his seat in the dressing-room, through the tunnel and out on to the Kingspan Stadium pitch tonight he’ll no doubt check in with the man above.
Whether he is giving thanks or asking for protection is between him and his maker, but for the 26-year-old there is a sense of renewal about his return.
In the corresponding fixture at the start of last season, Stockdale suffered an ankle injury that wrecked his campaign.
He spent 343 days out before making a return to action against Exeter Chiefs in pre-season.
He scored a try. He almost always scores a try. And, with that, the debate slowly began to rumble beneath the surface about a player who divides opinion like few others.
Stockdale is 26 now; a husband to Hannah and father to Phoebe who attended her first Ravenhill game two weeks ago.
Were he to retire tomorrow, he’d do so as arguably the greatest finisher Ireland has produced. In 35 Tests, he’s scored 19 tries and that strike rate of 0.54 tries per game is unrivalled.
He still has some way to go before he can surpass Brian O’Driscoll’s 46 in 133 internationals, yet at the end of the 2018 it looked like he was on the right path.
Few Irish players made more of an instant impact than Stockdale did in his first full season.
When he latched on to his own kick to score that famous try against the All Blacks in November 2018, he had already won a Grand Slam, broken the Six Nations single-season try-scoring record, won the Player of the Tournament and scored tries against the Springboks and Argentina.
There was some talk about how the defensive side of his game wasn’t quite up to scratch, but it was easy to brush that off with a return rate like his.
It was interesting listening to Andrew Trimble discuss his old Ulster team-mate this week, using the word ‘rollercoaster’ to describe Stockdale’s career.
Rather than one of those complexly designed efforts that go up, down and around, however, Stockdale’s trajectory is more similar to the theme park rides that take a thrill-seeker up to the highest point before plummeting without warning.
Sometimes they stop, sometimes they even go back for a minute, but that feeling in the pit of your stomach tells you that the fall is on the way.
Changing that trajectory is now Stockdale’s mission.
Perhaps the moment that marked a major turning point in the career is the fateful European quarter-final defeat to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium.
Ulster were awesome that day and just as they went to strike the killer blow, their Ireland star spilled the ball as he attempted to touch it down with one hand.
After his side lost the game to a late Ross Byrne penalty, Stockdale came in for fierce criticism in the TV studio and online.
His ability to create the opportunity with his strength, footwork and pace was forgotten as his final action hogged the spotlight.
And the vitriol that followed left a mark.
“The amount of resilience I learned coming out of that was massive in terms of dealing with trolls, upset and being able to bounce back whenever you don’t feel that confident,” he later recalled.
“A couple of days after the game were really tough for me. There were pages of ‘we hate Jacob Stockdale’ . . . but it was just something that I have to learn to deal with.”
Try as he might to move on from the incident, it seemed he was stuck in a spiral.
The World Cup came and went without a try, the quarter-final was a disaster for the player and the team as the All Blacks ran riot and exposed every error ruthlessly.
“I accept I didn’t have a good World Cup,” he said in early 2020.
“I didn’t really enjoy the World Cup in a rugby sense. It was pretty disappointing. You just have to park that and say, ‘That’s not me, I’m not defined by that’.”
Andy Farrell kept the faith and he started the coach’s first three games in charge before lockdown struck.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Stockdale went through every professional game of rugby he’d played to see where he could improve.
When sport resumed, he was picked at full-back which again provoked plenty of debate.
When he dallied over a loose ball and France pounced to score in the Six Nations decider he once again felt the sharp edge of the critics’ tongue.
Again, he fronted up and took it on the chin in the days that followed.
“I wouldn’t be getting picked for Ireland, or be getting picked for Ulster, if I wasn’t a good rugby player. My ability level hasn’t changed,” he said.
“It’s about being able to push yourself on and you’re still being able to improve as an individual even though the people around you are kind of saying, ‘This lad is not great’.
“I’d say, to be honest, that it doesn’t really affect my confidence. I’m able to rise above it because of my belief that I am a good rugby player and that I know more than what other people say about me.”
Whether it was that mistake, injury, or a general loss of form, Stockdale didn’t make the following year’s Lions tour; a prospect that would have seemed ridiculous earlier in the cycle.
On the face of it, he’s a prototype Warren Gatland winger; big, strong, quick, skilful, and a finisher. Yet, the Kiwi wasn’t convinced and in truth there wasn’t a whole lot of recriminations when Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe got the nod.
Stockdale was left “devastated” by Gatland’s decision, yet it wasn’t even the low point for him in 2021.
He finished the season with a try against Japan, but on the opening day of the new campaign his ankle went and that was that.
The year out will have deeply frustrated him, but Trimble believes it might just have been a blessing in disguise.
“He’s had a rollercoaster of an international career, he could do no wrong for his first year and then I felt like there were a few high-profile errors – the drop and the defensive errors – but as a winger I always feel like the winger gets the blame,” the retired Ulster player, who now works as an analyst for Premier Sports, said.
“There’s 14 other guys who can contribute and make the winger’s decision easier.
“He probably shouldered too much blame. He wasn’t blame-free, but it was too much. Then, the nature of these things, once you make a mistake and then another it multiplies how much people talk about it by 10.
“He showed massive maturity in dealing with that, bouncing back. He has huge character and resolve and the last 12 months will build that.
“But we all know what he’s capable of, how mentally tough he is and to be back anywhere near his best he’ll be dominant.
“Jacob was on a hiding to nothing. He was so good that first season when he broke through, and how do you follow that?
“In a typical pattern of a player that bursts on (the scene), it’s second-season syndrome. It’s not like he was performing that badly but he was getting a hard time for anything off that level that he was at.
“It’s so difficult for him to fulfil what’s expected of him.
“Certainly it looked like he was pretty fired up and pretty hungry going by those few touches he had against Exeter. He looks like a man that’s been like a coiled spring for the last year and a man that’s keen to prove a few people wrong; people have probably written him off and forgotten about him.”
Considering he’s on an IRFU central contract, you can be sure that Farrell has not forgotten about the winger.
During his time on the sidelines, Hugo Keenan has made the No 15 shirt his own while James Lowe has overcome his own defensive issues to nail down the left-wing slot.
Tonight in Belfast, Stockdale will begin his own bid to get back into the mix and the Ireland coach will be watching closely. There’s plenty of time for him to soar once more.
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