Jacob Stockdale: I don't plan to stop any time soon
Bemused Ulster and Ireland rugby sensation Jacob Stockdale has revealed that he finds his incredible success hard to believe.
After a record-breaking Six Nations earlier in 2018, the 22-year-old Lurgan-based winger capped what is likely the end of his year with Ireland by scoring the winning try in the historic 16-9 victory over the All Blacks on Saturday night.
The winger was watching at home on TV when Ireland registered their first ever win over New Zealand, the 40-29 victory in Chicago in 2016 that proved 111 years in the making. Two years on, he bagged his 12th try in just 14 caps as Ireland stunned the back-to-back world champions.
"Part of me can't believe it, it's been an incredible road to where I'm at at the moment," he said. "At the same time it's been an awful lot of hard work, there's been a lot of lessons as well, and I suppose that's what it takes to progress in international rugby and professional rugby in general. It's been a massive year and a half for me and I don't plan to stop any time soon."
Stockdale's try came only moments after he had almost gifted New Zealand one of their own but he didn't shirk the responsibility of taking on the chance when it came to him. Such assuredness was of no surprise to Rory Best, his captain with both Ireland and Ulster.
"We prepare really well to make sure that we know we can execute things," said Ireland captain Best. "When they don't necessarily come off the first time, it does take a little bit of confidence to chip that over again.
Best added: “Jacob’s a fantastic player and he got his opportunity. It was a really well-worked move, Bundee Aki put him into a bit of space. I was outside him, probably not in as much space, and he put it over the top.
“He doesn’t necessarily look the fastest until you try to keep up with him, that big long stride. The ball bounced his way but I do think you make your own luck with those bounces.
“He’s in the right place at the right time and it was very important for us. We knew we probably needed to score a try in the second half to win that game.”
Best got a huge reception when substituted in the second half, the reaction from Irish fans coming after he was criticised in some corners for his performance against Argentina seven days earlier.
“Yeah, look. I thought it was for Tadhg (Furlong),” he laughed.
“When you’re a hooker you judge it by the lineout, rightly or wrongly. I felt rusty in there last week and there was a lot of pressure.
“For me, it was trying to block that out and do what I do well which is trying to work hard.
“If you ask that from everyone in the team then usually you get a good team performance.”
In a surprise to nobody who has ever spent any amount of time with the man, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt does not believe that Saturday’s win against the world number one make his side favourites for the World Cup next year.
“They have been the world number one team for nine years, and continue to be the world number one team,” he said.” We were at home, and they were coming off a long series of games where they have travelled around the world a number of times.”
Meanwhile, Ben Smith’s broken demeanour told its own story. Standing to his right, a battered and bruised Sam Whitelock attempted to make sense of it all.
This group of All Blacks players are a proud bunch, yet one thing that must be said is how gracious they were in defeat.
From their head coach down, however, there were no excuses, no blaming of the referee. Just simply putting their hands up and admitting that they were beaten by the better team.
The Kiwi’s humility can often spill over into arrogance, but not this time.
Jacob Stockdale’s try was a work of art. Straight out of the Joe Schmidt play-book — as he had done for CJ Stander’s try in the Grand Slam decider in Twickenham — the Ireland maestro kept this latest stunning strike play in cold storage until the time was right to use it again.
Smith won’t want to see a replay of Stockdale’s try, as the winger gets sucked infield and leaves enough space on the left for the prolific Ulster man to weave his magic.
“They worked that pretty well and they all played their part to execute that try,” Smith said.
“It was well done and when they score a try like that you’ve just got to acknowledge the way they do that. As a team, they have got a lot of tricks up their sleeve, but we’ve got to be a bit better with how we defend those tricks and that is an example.
“I suppose they sort of manipulated us a wee bit with bringing myself up and then kicking in behind the space. It’s just well done and, as I said before, they played really well and deserved their win.
“That’s their game, they back themselves. They are a tough team to play because they make the most of their opportunities when they get them.”
Lessons aplenty, but Smith won’t have taken many happy memories away from the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night. On another occasion he might have gathered Beauden Barrett’s grubber kick and scored at a crucial stage in the second half.
Peter O’Mahony’s last-gasp intervention to snatch the ball from Smith’s grasp summed up Ireland’s relentless, never-say-die attitude.
“He did well, didn’t he, to reach back and grab that,” Smith sighed.
“I was starting to get excited, but it just bounced up. Yeah, we made a few opportunities but just couldn’t capitalise on them.
“That’s footy. Sometimes you get the bounce of the ball and sometimes you don’t. I thought we were making progress the last few minutes, but you’ve got to give credit to the way the Irish boys defended and put us under a lot of pressure. They forced us into a few errors at times.”
Captain Kieran Read insisted that while the pace of the game was not as fast as the Rugby Championship or last year’s Lions series, the intensity and physicality matched both.
Steve Hansen pointed to his side’s indiscipline in a first half that was littered with so many silly penalty concessions that you wondered what it would take for referee Wayne Barnes to sin bin an All Blacks player.
“They held the ball and it felt like we were defending very well, but we kind of let that pressure off by giving away a silly penalty, and all of a sudden they have another free go, and that’s something that we’ll address going forward,” Whitelock added.
“Then obviously when we had the ball, making sure that we can really penetrate. They defended very well so full credit to them, they didn’t give us many opportunities and the ones we did get, we didn’t capitalise.
“I think the first half we probably tried too hard and that’s why I think our discipline at times let us down.
“You can’t expect it to be perfect every time, but with 10, 12 minutes to go, we took a shot which was good. You’ve got to give full credit to them. We threw a lot at them, especially in that last 20, and they defended well and didn’t let us attack.”