Jacob Stockdale: Ireland wing on lockdown, learning curves and James Lowe

Jacob Stockdale
Stockdale ended a stunning 2018 season with a match-winning try against New Zealand in Dublin

Jacob Stockdale's career to date has not afforded much time for reflection.

Since making his Ulster debut in 2016, the Ireland wing had not gone more than three weeks without playing rugby until the pandemic brought about an unavoidable break.

For three months Stockdale, for the first time in his career, had the time to take a deep dive back into his entire back catalogue and assess how things have gone so far.

On the whole, pretty well. A year after his Ulster debut he earned his first senior Ireland cap, a year after that he broke the Six Nations record for tries in a single tournament and was named best player as Ireland romped to a Grand Slam.

It makes for impressive reading but, having spent lockdown casting his own critical eye over every one of his matches so far, Stockdale is reminded that his career has not been without its challenges.

'I've loved every minute of it' - Ulster and Ireland wing Stockdale

This week a new challenge has been set, with news of James Lowe's new contract meaning that the New Zealand-born Leinster wing will be available for Ireland selection in November.

Lowe is expected to immediately join the selection conversation, and is targeting the number 11 jersey largely occupied by Stockdale since the 2017 autumn internationals.

The 24-year-old Ulster wing expects an honest tussle for the starting spot, while rejecting any notion that he could fall victim to rugby's residency rule.

"Ireland have benefitted from Irish qualified players with Bundee Aki and CJ Stander, they've only strengthened the team," says Stockdale.

"They bring extra competition and realistically to be competitive you want the coach to have a headache every time he has to pick the team.

James Autumn
Leinster's James Lowe will be available for Ireland selection in the autumn

"That back three position with myself, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour. There are some seriously talented players in there and it's already a very competitive area.

"To make it even more competitive I think it is only a good thing because it forces everyone to push each other along.

"I'm excited about the prospect of James playing for Ireland and I'm planning on keeping my position."

'I'm very confident that I can play better'

Ulster returned to light training on Monday as preparations begin for their return to Pro14 action in August.

For Stockdale, it is a welcome return to something resembling normality, although he admits that the enforced break presented him with a pleasant opportunity to take stock on a whirlwind four years.

Since March he has watched each and every game he has played for both Ulster and Ireland.

"It's probably a bit sad to admit that, but it's something that I wanted to do just to see how I'd played," he says.

"It was really nice to look back at the games and realise the learning points that I've made over the course of my career so far."

There are some obvious highlights, including his 2018 try-scoring performances against England and New Zealand.

Stockdale scored seven tries as Ireland claimed a Grand Slam in 2018

That was the year that the rugby world sat up and took notice of the Ulsterman, whose try-scoring record for both province and country turned him into something of a statistical phenomenon.

His tally of seven tries in five Six Nations games reflected an impressive campaign, but Stockdale is clear that the correlation between tries scored and overall performance can often be misleading.

"When you're a winger a large part of scoring tries is to do with how well the guys inside you are playing," he says.

"Whenever you're playing in a Grand Slam-winning team and the entire team are performing really well, it makes your job much easier.

"I don't know if I'll ever score seven tries in a Six Nations again but looking back I'm very confident that I can play better.

"If you look back at that 2018 series my defence was, I would say, nowhere near the level it is now.

"There are definite things that I've been improving on in the last two years that whenever it comes to playing in the Six Nations again, I'll be able to perform to a higher level and that's what it's all about."

Stockdale after New Zealand
2019 proved more difficult for Stockdale who was part of Ireland's disappointing World Cup campaign

While his attacking prowess was evident from early in his career, Stockdale's defensive attributes have been the subject of more scrutiny.

As gratifying as the successes have been, Stockdale says learning to move on from the disappointing moments has been an equally important process in his development.

"In 2017 we played Leinster away and I had an absolute shocker of a game," he recalls.

"But a week after we had La Rochelle at home and the motivation from the game the week before was huge.

"I was just dying to get on the ball and prove a point that I am a good rugby player.

"From that experience I've learned that I don't need to have a bad game to need that motivation to play well."

"Realistically if I had been able to play well in both games, that would've been ideal."

Stockdale and his Ulster team-mates need to secure just two points from two inter-provincial derbies in August to book a place in the Pro14 semi-finals, while a behind closed doors European quarter-final against Toulouse awaits in September.