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Stockdale always had the class to hit the big time, says old coach Suffern

 

By Jonathan Bradley

It'll be an American dream come true for Jacob Stockdale this evening as the Ulster wing makes his Ireland debut against the USA, but one former coach has long known he was destined for the top.

The former Wallace High pupil will be lining out in the number 11 jersey in the Red Bull Arena (10pm kick-off), following on in the footsteps of Tommy Bowe and Stuart Olding by winning his first cap against the Eagles, as he caps off a fantastic 12 months that saw him excel at the under-20 World Cup and establish himself in his province's crowded back-three.

His PRO12 record of a try every 97 minutes last season caught the eye of Joe Schmidt, who is keen to get a closer look both today and when the squad moves on to Japan for two Tests against their 2019 World Cup opponents.

"We think that he's someone who's got great potential and we want to see what he can bring when the pressure comes on," said the national coach. "I think the young guys were impressive in the (U20) World Cup.

"It's an opportunity to build the base and those guys can help form that with performances in the next three weeks. It really is about building the base.

"You get to learn a bit more about them when they come into camp."

But his former school coach has long believed that this day would come for Stockdale.

Derek Suffern, who coached the Lisburn man at Wallace High and this summer left Ballynahinch after a trophy-filled spell at Ballymacarn Park, remembers being taken aback by his talent as early as four years ago.

Coming from a rugby-mad household, Stockdale grew up honing his skills at Ballynahinch minis, but it was only when entering secondary school that he settled in the outside backs.

Having stood at only 5'4" as a 15-year-old, a late growth spurt saw Stockdale make his impact in the Schools' Cup as a Lower Sixth student.

"It was against Ballymena at our place (in 2013)," Suffern recalls of when he first realised Stockdale was an extraordinary talent. "He had been on our threes the year before and all of a sudden he scored two tries both out of nothing.

"Everyone in the group, the players, the coaches, were all just thinking, 'my goodness me, we've got something here.'

"It came out of nowhere really but it was that early on and from there he hasn't looked back.

"In that Lower Sixth year, he was just super confident and started playing really well.

"He had always showed great promise in his early years at the school but, just when he didn't grow, he did have a little dip.

"Then all of a sudden he was 6"3' and from then, he's a big man, the size of some forwards, and that was a big part of that confidence.

"He was backing himself, taking people on and counter-attacking.

"It wasn't maybe there as a wee youngster but he's developed confidence in his later teens and rightly so because he's a very good player.

"He's a great footballer, good under the high-ball, great footwork, good pace. He's got all the attributes that he needs."

At only 21, it has been a meteoric rise for the man who becomes the first Wallace pupil to debut in green since Chris Henry. Indeed, thanks to New Jersey's licensing laws, Stockdale would have been unable to have the obligatory congratulatory pint had this debut came just two months earlier.

But Suffern always felt Stockdale was a youngster with a maturity beyond his years that will leave him able to take such things in his stride.

"He's a well rounded person and his family will take credit for that, as well as a bit of the school. He's always been like that, even when he was an obvious stand-out at school, he was still a great team-mate and that's what you need along with all the talent.

"He's barely played any club games, he's just gone straight into that professional set-up.

"He had a good run with the under-20s too and now he's reaping the rewards of all his hard work. It's paying dividends at the very top end.

"He's got that X-factor. He's got that confidence as well which has served him well.

"He's a big game player and he loves the big stage. It's an attribute of his character that you hope serves him well today.

"Hopefully he gets a bit of ball tonight and gets into the game early.

"It's brilliant to see him get the opportunity and it'll be really interesting to see how he goes."

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