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Sky's the limit and I'm determined to improve, vows Stockdale after Grand Slam success

By Jonathan Bradley

A record breaker, a Grand Slam winner and a history maker, Jacob Stockdale knows that for both him and Ireland, the sky is the limit.

No man had ever scored seven tries in a single Six Nations campaign but, with his memorable stretch for the ball in Twickenham on Saturday, Stockdale managed the feat in his very first attempt.

This time a year ago he was uncapped, today only 18 men have ever dotted down more in the green jersey. His first nine caps have produced 11 tries, and more importantly nine wins. It's been a remarkable ride, but not one he's keen to see end any time soon.

"The sky is the limit I guess," he said when asked how many more times he could cross the whitewash.

"It's a great feeling (to set a new record). Every game I was just going out and trying to do the best I could and thankfully the tries came from that. It was nice to help the team.

"It's one of the best feelings I've ever had in a rugby shirt and to do it in my first time is pretty special."

Nominated yesterday on a six-man shortlist for Player of the Tournament, it's certainly been a whirlwind ride for the former Wallace High pupil who took a moment this week when back in Lurgan to reflect on his meteoric rise. To think, five years ago he couldn't get a game in his school's first team.

"It's a bit strange," he noted. "I met up for a coffee with my dad during the week and we were both saying how strange it was. At the same time, I've gone step by step to get where I am. It's a mixture of emotions."

Emotions that came to the fore at the final whistle on Saturday, especially from his proud mother.

"We'd been told the families were in the corner so we managed to get over there. I got a hug from my mum and my dad, my girlfriend. My mum was crying, that was a bit embarrassing. It's brilliant to share moments like that with the family."

Throughout this most memorable of campaigns, Stockdale has always said he is still keen to learn and, despite achieving a feat that none of the best wingers he watched growing up could manage, he remains fully aware that he is not yet to be considered the finished article.

At just 21, he could be terrifying opposition defences in the Test arena for the next decade.

"The games come so thick and fast you don't have time to relax or rest on your laurels. Maybe I'll take some time after the tournament," he said.

"I'll deal with (the attention) the same way I've dealt with it before. I'll work hard, and not get too into myself or too excited about how good you are.

"It's about working as hard as you can and getting better. I think, probably, every area of my game is something I'd like to improve. I'd like to improve my kicking and defensively too, I'd really focus on them and look to make them strengths."

With Ireland, and especially Joe Schmidt, he knows he has the right people driving him on.

"Joe is a phenomenal coach. Him, Andy Farrell, Richie Murphy, all the coaches have been great in improving me as a player," he said.

"Joe expects the best from every player that steps onto the pitch. Because he's expecting that, you push yourself to try and achieve it."

And as Stockdale looks to keep growing, he is part of a side who are on a similarly upward curve. Ireland have won a record 12 games in a row, and their last loss came all the way back against Wales in March 2017.

The win over Scotland took them second in the world, beating England consolidated that position and, in such a rich vein of form, they are inclined to look up rather than down.

That means New Zealand, the back-to-back world champions. It took Ireland over a century to beat the All Blacks, breaking that duck in Chicago in 2016, but the two sides will meet again this autumn with Steve Hansen's men coming to Dublin in November.

While Ireland as a nation are rarely caught exuding confidence, Stockdale believes it's only natural that Schmidt's side will relish the chance to test themselves against the very best in the world, especially with a World Cup coming ever closer into view.

"Joe hasn't said, 'New Zealand is the target' but 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," he said.

"At the minute that's New Zealand. We're going to keep training and working as hard as we can.

"We've won a Grand Slam, that's the first stepping stone to being a dominant team in world rugby. We're sitting No.2 in the world, and we're excited to have a crack at New Zealand.

"We're in a really good place right now but there's still a lot to work on. We can look forward to next year's Six Nations and then the World Cup."

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