The Ireland wing provides an insight into his life on and off the field

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Jacob Stockdale on running, religion and rugby memories

Jacob Stockdale recently bought a Mustang on eBay. It’s navy blue with white stripes down the centre. Cars are a big love of his and the plan is to make use of his days off by doing this one up, learning about engines as he goes.

If Stockdale were a car, it would no doubt have ‘go-faster’ stripes. He’s not one to hang about. A couple of years into his international career, he is only one try away from becoming one of Ireland’s top ten try-scorers of all time having already crossed for 16 in 21 Tests.

He’s not one to rest on his laurels either and is working on fine-tuning himself as well as his Mustang. “Defence is a big improvement for me,” replies Stockdale when asked about the areas he’s made most strides in since his 2017 Test debut.

“It’s something that was seen as a bit of a weakness before but I’ve worked really hard on that in the last couple of seasons – and I’m not finished yet. My high-ball work in the air is coming along, too, and is something I want to turn into a strength, to dominate in the air and go after balls. If you can catch cross-kicks, it can be a 30-40m gain for the team.”

Having had a few hamstring problems during his career, the 23-year-old is also working with Ireland’s strength and conditioning coaches to change his running style and put less strain on the muscles. It’s a tough task when your body is so used to moving a certain way.

“It’s easy when you’re thinking about it and running in a straight line, but when you have a rugby ball in your hands and are trying to focus on beating a defender it’s a bit trickier,” he says. “I’m seeing improvements in how I run and if you compare the last season to the three seasons before it looks better. It’s trying to get my running style more effective and natural, and hopefully faster.”

Watch Stockdale break down the wing for Ulster or Ireland and you wouldn’t think there was much wrong with his running ability, but small changes can make a big difference. When he first joined the Ulster Academy, he had a few injuries and used the time on the sidelines to get bigger and stronger.

Yet while he could lift huge amounts in the gym, he’d lost his top-end speed and couldn’t change direction easily. Now he’s found his optimum “fighting weight” to combine power and pace.

Had he not had a growth spurt at 16, however, Stockdale would probably be playing rugby as a hobby while working in the criminology field. As it happened, growing nine inches in a year enhanced his rugby ability and the degree he started fell by the wayside when rugby commitments took over.

“At 16 I was 5ft 6in. Then when I came back from the summer holidays I was 6ft and then I kept growing until I was 6ft 3in. I was pretty useless at rugby before but with the growth in height I got bigger and stronger and faster, and I found I was able to break tackles. I felt a lot more confident too.

“I would always have played rugby because I love the sport, but I wouldn’t be half as good a player.”

Jacob Stockdale on running, religion and rugby memories

Kicking on: Jacob Stockdale has worked on his kicking game (Getty Images)

With the possibility of two months in Japan should Ireland make history in reaching the World Cup semi-finals for the first time, it is an intense time for rugby’s top players. Yet Stockdale has always been one to find ways to switch off, valuing the importance of balance.

When he first started out, he had his criminology degree. He also plays the guitar, although Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car is the only song he’d be confident enough to perform in public; instead he tries to strum Eric Clapton tunes at home.

He’s also involved in the Peace IV project at Lurgan RFC, whose U20 side were Rugby World’s January Team of the Month. He visits local schools to encourage children to get involved in the summer course and lends a hand with coaching when he can. He sees Peace IV as a way of helping Northern Ireland move forward and says: “It’s a cross-community project that brings the two sides – nationalists and unionists – together. We go into schools and try to get them talking through rugby. A lot of kids have never played rugby in their lives, so they come along, learn and play a tournament at the end of it.

“I’m a very strong believer in Northern Ireland moving forward and the best way to do that is through the younger generations, the generations coming after me. The two sides of the community can be friends and talk and move on from the past. It’s small steps but hopefully it makes a difference.”

Religion also plays a big part in his life. His belief that his future is out of his hands means he doesn’t dwell for too long on defeats. Yes, he’s disappointed but he’ll grasp the intended lessons.

Take Ulster’s European Champions Cup quarter-final defeat by Leinster, when Stockdale burst past a handful of defenders only to drop the ball over the line. “Don’t get me wrong; I was really upset about it and felt sorry for myself for a day or two, but then I moved on,” he says. “He (God) wanted me to learn from it and I did learn a lesson.

“The big thing I’ve learnt is your curve is not always going to rise, it will have dips and tough times, and the more tough times I have the more I learn to deal with them. It’s nice not to worry about the future. I work as hard as I can to be the best player I can, but if it’s not God’s plan, it’s not happening.

Jacob Stockdale on running, religion and rugby memories

Try time: Jacob Stockdale scores against Wales (Getty Images)

“Praying can help me in the middle of a game – the last time was probably in that quarter-final! I remember the first time I played at the Aviva (Stadium) and scored a try, I looked up to say, ‘Thanks for that’. The camera caught me and I had a weird expression on my face!”

Of course, talk of religion and rugby leads to Israel Folau. What does Stockdale make of the full-back’s sacking by Rugby Australia after his anti-gay social media posts and Folau’s claim it is religious discrimination?

“It’s a very difficult situation – it’s never going to be black and white. On the one hand, I support Israel Folau’s right to religion and right to freedom of speech. On the other hand, he’s representing Australia and the Waratahs, and he has a large amount of responsibility not to offend supporters. If it was me, I’d want people to feel comfortable coming to watch me play rugby.”

While Folau isn’t in Japan for RWC 2019, Stockdale is front and centre of Ireland’s campaign. Ask him about his World Cup memories and he mentions New Zealand’s loss to France in 2007 and Bernard Foley’s try against England in 2015 that knocked out the hosts, but it is the 2011 tournament that stands out most. He describes himself as “obsessed”, rising in the early hours to watch all 48 matches taking place in New Zealand.

So what of this World Cup? Can Ireland break into the last four for the first time? “The Ireland team has made history before and there’s no reason we can’t now. I feel pretty confident.”

Ireland must start well, with Scotland first up before further pool matches against Japan, Russia and Samoa. If, as expected, they make it out of the group, they will surely face New Zealand or South Africa in the last eight. Stockdale is aware of the size of the challenge, but there are big motivators.

“Scotland are a very good team and probably haven’t had the success in the last couple of years they deserved. It’s a nice way to start the tournament, you’re not feeling your way in. If we beat them it stands us in good stead to top the group.

“Joe’s leaving and Rory Best is retiring after the World Cup, there are probably a couple of other guys who won’t go to another World Cup, so it’s massive. We want to perform to our potential.”

Stockdale has done that since breaking into the Irish team. He exceeded his own expectations by nailing down a starting spot so quickly. Like his Mustang, he covers ground quickly.

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Rugby World magazine.

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