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Rapid rise to Six Nations stardom is 'weird', admits Ireland hero Jacob Stockdale

 

By Jonathan Bradley

It is fair to say that Jacob Stockdale has been far more successful as an Ireland player than Ireland spectator.

Ulster's world superstar in waiting is eight for eight when it comes to wins when selected for the national side and, still three weeks shy of his 22nd birthday, already has a Six Nations medal to his name after a Championship in which he has tied the all-time record for tries in a single season - with one game still to play.

A Grand Slam at the very first attempt could be secured at the weekend, while one more score would see him stand alone in the history books.

The latest victory in the green jersey came against Scotland last Saturday, his two tries and England's later loss helping Ireland to their third title in five years.

As a player he can't lose, but his 100% record in the green jersey is in stark contrast to his previous as a punter, where Ireland lost on his only past visit to the Aviva Stadium.

Seven years ago, Stockdale and his father, Graham, headed down to Dublin to watch the visit of England with Martin Johnson's side winning 20-9 after a performance inspired by Manu Tuilagi.

On Saturday at Twickenham, the opposition will be the same, but Stockdale will be in the 11 jersey rather than the stands.

He admits that to have risen to where he is now so quickly, just two years out from starring for the Under-20s, occasionally requires a quick stock take.

"It's weird to realise I'm at this level now and playing regularly in the Six Nations," he said from Carton House, the Irish base in County Kildare where he has spent the past eight weeks. "If you told me that a year ago, I wouldn't have believed it.

"On the other hand, I've worked really hard to get where I am, putting in good performances for Ulster and Ireland Under-20s, stuff like that.

"So I feel like I have built towards it but I'm pretty pleased at how it has accelerated more than I expected."

The reward this weekend could be a small slice of Irish rugby immortality if Joe Schmidt's men can become just the third squad from these shores to claim a Grand Slam and a first since 2009.

Stockdale watched the Cardiff clincher that year, when his then hero and now Ulster team-mate Tommy Bowe grabbed a decisive try, at home with his family and the celebrations that day were considerably more raucous than those managed in the Ireland team room last weekend.

The side were already changed, suited and booted by the time England lost to France, handing the Six Nations title to Schmidt's men with a round to spare.

The first medal of his senior career, Stockdale admitted things were relatively muted, what with the larger prize of the Grand Slam still on offer.

"We were at our post-match dinner when France beat England," he recalled. "We had a bit of a celebration but that was it. You kind of sit down and say we are the Six Nations champions but at the same time we want to go over to England and we want to get a Grand Slam. It's a weird feeling, mixed emotions."

Mixed would be a harsh way to describe Stockdale's first exposure of the northern hemisphere's premier tournament this season, but for all his remarkable try-scoring exploits over the last two months, there have been times when he has looked exactly what he is - a youngster still learning the ropes at this highest of levels.

Errors in the glare of this Championship loom all the larger, and there have been some without the ball, but the Ballynahinch clubman is still taking every game as an opportunity for growth.

In a different defensive system than he is used to with Ulster, he looks more assured as the weeks go by, and while a missed tackle still drew the ire of some circles on social media, he showed on Saturday that he still trusts his instincts with a third intercept try of the campaign, lurking to snatch Peter Horne's pass and streak home.

"I'm still learning, and even throughout the course of this Six Nations, every week I've felt like I learned something," he acknowledged. "I feel I've grown as a player and that's the vitally important thing.

"It's not necessarily going, 'Oh, I made a mistake'. It's more, 'I made a mistake, how can I learn from that?' It's about making sure that mistake doesn't happen again next week. I don't know whether you'd call that risk and reward, it's trying to do everything as best you can every time.

"Every player on the pitch is chasing the perfect game. When you walk out, you're not thinking, 'I hope I have an 80% game'. You're going out saying, 'I want a 100% game here'.

"If you don't chase 100%, you're chasing 80% and you might get 60%. It's going out and having the very best game I can. If I make a mistake, I think, 'How will I not make that mistake again next week?' so I can have a better game."

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