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Jacob Stockdale on finding his self-belief, why family and faith are central to his life... and how his mum finally came around to his tattoo

The rugby star from Lurgan, who went from promising rookie to Six Nations Player of the Championship in his debut senior season and scored a record-breaking seven tries to help Ireland win the Grand Slam, talks to Cian Tracey


Ireland international and Grand Slam winner Jacob Stockdale

Ireland international and Grand Slam winner Jacob Stockdale

The couple going to an event

The couple going to an event

Stockdale scoring against Wales at the Aviva Stadium

Stockdale scoring against Wales at the Aviva Stadium

Ireland international and Grand Slam winner Jacob Stockdale

The tattoo on Jacob Stockdale's right arm is a constant reminder of everything in his life that is important to him - family and religion. For years, before the record-breaking Ireland winger took to the pitch, he would draw a cross on his wrist, along with the initials of his parents and two sisters. Scrawling words on their taping is a common trend amongst rugby players, who find inspiration in these trigger cues - particularly when the going gets tough.

However, two years ago, Stockdale decided to have the image permanently inked onto his skin. "I had it there when I was playing as a reminder, but I thought, 'Why not have it there as a constant reminder?'" he says. The Celtic cross is surrounded by the letters 'G' for his father, Graeme, and 'J' for his mother, Janine, as well as 'H' and 'L' for his sisters, Hannah and Lydia.

Like most Northern Irish mothers, Janine, who works as a doctor in midwifery, was unenthusiastic about the idea of her teenage son getting a tattoo, but Stockdale was adamant it was something he wanted.

"It was (drawn on the tape) pretty much exactly as it is on my arm now," he explains. "Just a wee bit more fancy. Mine was a bit rudimentary. It's essentially the exact same.

"My mum wasn't a big supporter of me getting a tattoo. She was very much like. 'Ah, you'll hate it and then you'll be stuck with it'. But I always knew I wanted to get it. When she saw it, she went, 'Ah, you know what? I think it's okay'. She ended up being quite supportive of it."

That kind of support from home has been a hallmark of Stockdale's upbringing and has played a huge role in him remaining so grounded.

And that's something he's going to need after a breathtaking performance in the last two months, which saw him becoming a Grand Slam champion, record try-scorer in the Six Nations and player of the tournament - all in his debut season in the championship.

Born in Co Tyrone, Stockdale and his family moved around Northern Ireland a lot. His father, Graeme, currently works as a chaplain in the prison service at Maghaberry but, in his earlier days as a Presbyterian minister, his line of work took him to several destinations across the province.

They eventually settled in Lurgan when Stockdale was 15.

"I was born at home in a town called Newtownstewart," he says. "We moved to Ballynahinch, then to Banbridge and then finished up in Lurgan.

"We moved around a good bit. It was fun. I got to meet loads of people and people from different places. I'm probably pretty thankful for that, to be honest, because the friends I have made have lasted a long time.

"The entire time I was moving around, I was always going to Wallace High School. I had a good group of friends there, which never really changed.

"It was great. I had a really fun childhood. My mum and dad were really great parents and probably let me off a wee bit more than they should have.

"We went to church every week. Christianity has been a big part of my life right up until now and probably will continue to be for the rest of my life."

By the time the Stockdales settled in Lurgan, rugby had really taken a hold on Jacob. Before that, the passion was there, but his skills were still developing.

"Rugby was always something that I enjoyed, but it was never an option as a career path because I wasn't good enough back then," he says.

"Up until I was 15 or 16, I was playing for the Bs and the thirds and fourths in my school team. When I was about 17, rugby kinda just shot off. I had a big growth spurt and that helped an awful lot in terms of being able to break tackles. Then, when I was bigger, I got a little bit more confidence on the pitch and started to back myself to be able to attack and make tackles.

"When I was in fifth year, I was playing for the thirds. When I came back after the summer, the first game in lower sixth, I started for the firsts and had a really good game. I just thought, 'This isn't as hard as I thought it was'.

"Then I realised I could actually potentially be quite a good rugby player. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would make it as far as I have, but that was a turning point for me.

"I got picked for Ulster under-18s, Ireland under-18s and then the under-20s, and it propelled itself from there."

Is he one of those players who can easily turn their hand to any sport? "I played a wee bit of cricket when I was younger but, again, I wasn't very good at it," he says.

"I also played a bit of football. I just loved playing sports and messing about, but rugby was the only one I took particularly seriously."

He was also serious, however, about music. Johnny Cash is his idol, and he says that learning the Man in Black's songs actually helped him along in his rugby career.

"I have always been a huge admirer of Johnny Cash. I remember watching the movie Walk the Line when I was 13. I became obsessed with his music.

"I am an okay guitarist. I can play guitar, banjo and ukulele ... anything that I like the sound of and I can get into.

"I'm a big fan of Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan as well.

"My mum came from quite a musical family. She wanted me to be a pianist, not a rugby player. We said that we would meet in the middle, so I'd play guitar and play rugby."

When he began to consider pursuing a full-time career in rugby, it meant sitting down for a serious conversation with his parents.

Though initially keen for him to pursue his criminology degree at the University of Ulster, Graeme and Janine soon realised that their son was a special talent on the rugby pitch.

"At first it was kind of tough," the winger admits. "It was probably tough to be my parents because they basically saw me throwing away my A-levels to try and play professional rugby at a level where very few people get to do that.

"That was a bit frustrating for them, I'd say. But I think when I was accepted into the Ulster Academy, my parents realised that it was a genuine opportunity.

"They were supportive throughout, but that was probably the point where they said, 'Okay, your academic future can take a bit of a back seat because you can go back and do that at any age, but this is a one-off opportunity'.

"I always had their support. They always had a real strong belief in me, which was brilliant for me as a player. But for them to say, 'Okay, we completely support you not going to university and putting all your time into rugby', that was a pretty big thing."

It was big, too, to get used to having a professional athlete in the family. "I suppose they pinch themselves like I do because I'm actually doing this," Jacob says.

"Whenever people ask my sisters, 'So, what does your brother do?', and they say, 'Professional rugby player', it's a bit of a strange thing to say.

"Not many people can say that about their brothers. I think they have found it as weird as I have.

"My dad and my grandad played at school and at club level. Not professional or anything. It was just something that was so alien to us a family - that they could have a son that was a professional rugby player and that was his job. There's not many of us around and it doesn't happen very often. I think it would probably be the same for every family. It's quite a strange thing to wrap your head around."

His studies may have been put to the side for now, but Stockdale has a wise head on young shoulders and understands the importance of having a good education behind him.

"I'm definitely going to try and get my degree done during rugby," he insists. "There are a lot more options if you have your university degree. It's worth having something to fall back on after rugby. It's vitally important. You can't just be a one-trick pony and play rugby your entire life. It's something that I definitely will get done."

Since making his Ulster debut as a 19-year-old, Stockdale's career has sky-rocketed. He was a key figure in the first Ireland under-20s team to beat New Zealand en route to a maiden World Cup final appearance in 2016.

When the call from Joe Schmidt came, Stockdale made a try-scoring senior debut for Ireland's win over the USA last summer, but, mischievously, he had kept his family guessing as to whether or not he made the cut before that game.

When he simply wrote “bad news” into the family WhatsApp group, his mother’s immediate response was to soften the blow by reassuring him that his time would come, before Stockdale eventually told her the truth.

“It’s probably true of my entire family,” he says. “We don’t anything too seriously. We try and have as much of a laugh as we can.”

There’s been plenty for the Stockdale family to smile about as they followed Jacob to every match of the Six Nations. His girlfriend, Jess, whom he met two years ago while she was studying at university, has been another important support for the young player.

The tears that were shed by his mother in Twickenham after Stockdale’s first-half try helped Ireland clinch the Grand Slam were a sign of the journey they have all been on together.

“My mum and dad were at the game and my sisters went and watched the game with my uncle and auntie,” he says. “They live over there. My parents came to all the home games and then it was just my mum and my sister at the France away game because my dad was at work.”

Of the record-breaking seven tries that Stockdale scored during the tournament, his intercept try that clinched the win against Wales at the Aviva Stadium remains his favourite, particularly because he had the chance to savour the moment as he sprinted clear to score with a wide smile on his face.

For someone who had set a goal for himself to play in the Six Nations by the age of 23, Stockdale has blown even his own expectations out of the water.

“I have always been very goal-driven,” he admits. “I’m lucky that playing in the Six Nations came earlier than expected. I’ve always been a person that needs a goal to work towards. It’s not difficult because as soon as you do one goal, the goal changes. You want to do something else.

“For me, it’s about getting better every time I go out on the pitch, which means that I don’t have any bother getting motivated for my next game.

“When I was injured in my first year in the Academy, the S&C (strength and conditioning) coach said to me, ‘Right, we’re just going to put as much weight on you as you can’, so that was my goal — to be as big, strong and heavy as possible and see what would happen. I ended up having to slim back down again.”

Should he ever need to add bulk again, however, he’ll gladly indulge in his cheat meal of choice. “I love a good kebab — doner kebab with house sauce smeared all over it,” he smiles.

Stockdale intends to buy his own house in the not-too-distant future, and he also has plans to get an English bulldog. For now, he’s sharing with his Ulster team-mates Adam McBurney, Marcus Rea and Jack Regan — and they are regularly to be found watching The Jeremy Kyle Show. “I love Jeremy Kyle! Probably just because it makes me feel a bit better about myself! It’s great entertainment.”

He has a trip to New York with Jess to look forward to but, for now, television is about the extent of the entertainment he can enjoy — the Grand Slam celebrations were quickly curtailed as he was straight back in action with Ulster.

“It’s been pretty fun,” he says. “I got back to the hotel after the game and was able to chill out and celebrate as a team. Travelling back to Dublin and getting the reception that we did coming off the plane was special.

“We knew we had an opportunity to do something special — something that hadn’t been done too many times before. That message that we really needed a big performance to be able to make history was hammered home to us.

“The hardest part now is just trying to remember all the Ulster calls again. The Ireland calls are just battered into your head so much over the last few months that it is hard to switch back.

“I don’t need any motivation to play for Ulster. It’s where I grew up. It’s the team I have always watched and I played for Ulster before I played for Ireland, so I don’t think I’ll have a problem in terms of motivation.”

As the undisputed man of the moment, more and more people are going to recognise Stockdale when he’s walking the streets of Belfast from now on — something he accepts as part of the job.

“The more successful I am, the more different my life is probably going to get,” he concedes. “It’s something that I’m trying not to think about much. I just go with the flow. A lot of the time, it depends what kind of mood you are in. If you’re in the mood to have a lot of attention, then it’s okay.

“It’s something that’s just part and parcel of playing rugby. I’m more than happy to take on that responsibility. I wouldn’t trade rugby and what I do for a living for anything in the world.”

Belfast Telegraph