Jacob Stockdale could hardly have scripted his first NatWest 6 Nations Championship any better. The numbers speak for themselves. A record seven tries, five starts, 395 match minutes and a much-sought after Grand Slam number three for Ireland.
Not only did Jacob Stockdale set a new record for most tries in a single Six Nations Championship, his successive scores against Italy (2), Wales (2), Scotland (2) and England have seen him take an Irish record away from fellow winger Keith Earls just nine months after it was set.
Earls ended the 2017 summer tour to the USA and Japan with a nine-try tally from the year, setting a new mark for the most tries by an Ireland player in a single season. However, the 21-year-old Stockdale has now gone one better with 10 tries, including his first touchdowns at the Aviva Stadium against South Africa and Argentina (2) last November.
IRELAND’S ALL-TIME TOP TRY SCORERS IN AN INTERNATIONAL SEASON:
Jacob Stockdale (2017/18) – 10 tries/7 starts (1 v South Africa, 2 v Argentina, 2 v Italy, 2 v Wales, 2 v Scotland, 1 v England)
Keith Earls (2016/17) – 9 tries/9 starts (1 v Canada, 1 v Australia, 1 v Scotland, 2 v Italy, 2 v USA, 2 v Japan)
Denis Hickie (2003/04) – 8 tries/6 starts (4 v Italy, 1 v Scotland, 2 v Romania, 1 v Namibia)
Keith Wood (1999/00) – 7 tries/12 starts/1 rep (1 v Argentina, 4 v USA, 1 v Scotland, 1 v Italy)
Brian O’Driscoll (2003/04) – 7 tries/14 starts (1 v Australia, 2 v France, 2 v Wales, 1 v Italy, 1 v South Africa)
Tommy Bowe (2011/12) – 7 tries/9 starts (2 v USA, 1 v Wales, 2 v Italy, 2 v France)
Keith Crossan (1986/87) – 6 tries/9 starts (3 v Romania, 1 v England, 2 v Canada)
Brian O’Driscoll (1999/00) – 6 tries/10 starts (1 v USA, 1 v Scotland, 1 v Italy, 3 v France)
Keith Earls (2011/12) – 6 tries/14 starts (2 v Russia, 2 v Italy, 1 v Wales, 1 v Italy)
It was no surprise to see a number of Ireland’s young backs name-check Earls in the aftermath of the 24-15 Twickenham victory, citing the Moyross man as an inspirational figure in camp. “Me and Earlsy have kinda played on the wings together since my first cap,” said Stockdale. “To have that kind of experience on the other side of the pitch and him kinda telling me what I need to do or what I haven’t done what I need to do is invaluable. He’s a great guy and a lovely bloke as well which really helps.”
Understandably, the 2018 Championship’s top try scorer was finding it hard to take in when he asked what it is like to be a Grand Slam winner at such a tender age. “One of the best feelings I’ve felt in a rugby shirt. To get it at my first attempt has been something pretty special. It’s a bit strange to be honest (to win it at 21),” he said.
“I met up for a coffee with my dad this week and we were both just saying how strange it is. But at the same time, I’ve kinda gone step by step to try and get to where I am. It’s a mixture of emotions, I’d say.”
Delighted to be able to meet up with his girlfriend Jessica and his mum Janine and dad Graham after the trophy presentation and celebrations at Twickenham, he added: “Ach, it was incredible. We had been told that the families were over in the corner so we managed to get over there. I got a hug from my mum and dad and my girlfriend. Mum was crying, so it was a bit embarrassing! It’s brilliant to be able to share these moments with them.”
With his grandfather and father both having played rugby for Ballyclare, the Lisburn-born Stockdale grew up with a love of the game, and a timely growth spurt, which saw him shoot up by almost a foot in the space of six months, helped him star in the colours of Wallace High School at senior level. He won the Ulster Rugby Schools Player of the Year award in 2014, the first player from the school to do so since Chris Henry.
The tall and versatile back enhanced his reputation when he stepped up to the Ulster Academy and had a two-year stint with the Ireland Under-20s, scoring five tries in his second season as the James Ryan-led side reached the World Rugby U-20 Championship final. With his native Ulster, he has notched 17 tries in 37 senior appearances and recently signed a new deal which keeps him at Kingspan Stadium until the summer of 2020.
Dubbed a ‘very laid back big fella’ by his dad, a Presbyterian minister, the Ballynahinch clubman’s powerful build, rangy running style and growing reputation as an out-and-out finisher has seen him take to international rugby like a duck to water. While still very much a work in progress, Joe Schmidt is clearly excited by Stockdale’s potential.
“He’s been a bit of a revelation,” the Ireland head coach told RTE. “He is a young man that we were pretty keen to get him involved in November to see how he went because he is pretty raw, he’s very young. He’s a fine athlete and he’s getting more of an understanding of the game and making better decisions all the time.”
The fact that Stockdale played all but five minutes of Ireland’s unforgettable Grand Slam run speaks volumes for the belief that Schmidt has in him. He was delighted to reward the management’s faith in him, acknowledging: “Joe’s a phenomenal coach, and him and (defence coach) Andy Farrell and (skills and kicking coach) Richie Murphy, and all the coaching staff, have been instrumental in improving me as a player.
“Joe expects the best from every guy that steps on the pitch, because Joe is expecting that you push yourself to try and achieve that. So he’s been really big in that sense.”
While admitting that setting a new Six Nations try-scoring record is ‘a pretty good feeling’ for him personally, the affable Ulster star was just focused on putting his best foot forward and helping the team to continue their winning ways.
“To be honest, I was just going out every game and trying to play as best I could and luckily the tries came for me. (The Six Nations record) is a nice accolade to have. It was nice to get another try (against England) and help the team to victory,” he explained.
(For the try) obviously Mike Brown was the last defender and there was a bit of space in behind. I put a bit of a chip over and kinda after that it was a mixture of a bit of instinct and luck that it came off my knee and then I managed to get it before it went dead. I’d say the intercept against Wales is probably my favourite (of the seven tries) because it kinda finished off the game nicely. It felt pretty good.”
Stockdale, who now has 11 tries in nine Tests, feels the best is yet to come from the newly-crowned Grand Slam champions as they look forward to touring Australia in the summer, hosting New Zealand in Dublin in November, and then building for a big 2019 which includes a Six Nations title defence and a tilt at Rugby World Cup glory in Japan.
Asked how far he feels this team can go, he replied: “Well, we’ve won a Grand Slam – that’s kinda the first stepping stone towards being a really dominant team in world rugby. We’re sitting number two (in the world) and it’d be exciting to have a crack at New Zealand. We’re in a really good place now, we’ve gelled really well but we’ve still got a lot to work on, looking forward to next year’s Six Nations and the World Cup.
“Your ambition is to be the best team in the world and to do that you have to beat the best team in the world which at the moment is New Zealand. We’re just going to keep training and working as hard as we can and trying to get things right and hopefully that comes.”
On his own game, Stockdale insisted: “I’ve probably got every area of my game to improve. I’d like to improve my kicking, my ability in the air, and defensively as well. Those are a few that I’d really like to focus on over the next while and make them strengths.”