March 30, 2019: It is minutes after the final whistle in the Aviva Stadium. The noise coming from the Leinster changing room tells you the home team are in yet another European semi-final. Their seventh from 2009. The only noise in the Ulster camp down the corridor is the clatter of boots being taken off. Well, that and the sobbing of Jacob Stockdale.
In a cracking game of rugby, where the consensus was Ulster had left it behind them, the most prominent piece in that lost luggage had been Stockdale's failure to score in his favourite corner. The one where he helped Ireland over the line against the All Blacks in 2018, the year he won Player of the Tournament with seven tries in Ireland's Grand Slam season.
He had done the hard part - very well, as it happens - but then lost the plot with the easy bit. Offered the open door of falling over the line for a try that would have put Ulster seven points clear, with the prospect of the conversion making it a two-score game, he tried to pick the lock by dotting the ball down. Under pressure from Dave Kearney the ball went forward. Game over.
In his immediate post-match analysis on television, former Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll described it as "unforgiveable." Even allowing for O'Driscoll's struggle to find the right words under pressure, it was an extraordinary putdown.
A tearful Stockdale apologised to his teammates afterwards. As you do. As one of his Ulster colleagues put it last week: "It's the type of thing you should be able to get over in a week. But it affected him for a long time. To be honest it nearly broke him."
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In the summer of 2016, Ireland's under 20 side did what no other men in green had done: they beat New Zealand in a rugby match. Max Deegan picked up the Player of the Year award after that World Cup, but Stockdale was a revelation. In Ireland we don't produce big men in the back three who have such a range of skills. Stockdale, who looked like he was scripting the show, was definitely different.
We saw it in the opening game. Wales had raced into a 17-point lead. Then the roller coaster kicked into life. Towards the end of the first half Stockdale didn't just start a counter-attack from his own in-goal area, with his back to the onrushing opposition, he survived two attempts there to nail him. He got the ball 15 metres back in play, where he was tackled. And, of course, offloaded.
So, when it came to adventure this kid was the Indiana Jones of Irish rugby. Interestingly there was also a touch of Edward Scissorshands about him. Naturally enough he got on the scoresheet that day in the win that kick-started Ireland's campaign. He scored in the left corner - where else - with a finish that was instructive. Well, in hindsight it is.
Ireland were a point ahead at the time, having risen from the dead, with 12 minutes to play. A seven-point return would have made it a two-score game. Maybe he was working that bit out in his head, for a dive from a few metres out would have taken him comfortably over the line, with a touchline conversion to come. Instead, he explored the option of running around closer to the posts. In the process he exposed himself to a tackle, which he rode successfully. So was he thinking of the team, or of himself? Or was he thinking at all?
Stockdale knocked great crack out of that tournament. He had played 20s the year before. Second time around, with Les Kiss giving him a senior Ulster debut off the bench, followed by five starts, you could understand if he had brighter stars in his eyes than playing with his peers. On the contrary. He was up for the 20s stuff from Championship through to World Cup. It was serious, but less serious than senior. He liked that.
The following summer he made his debut for Joe Schmidt's Ireland. On a muggy day in New Jersey it took Stockdale all of 14 minutes to become a try-scorer in Test rugby. He was off and running. No one could catch him. He won races, he broke tackles - when he kicked the ball it went for miles, on the right flightpath. He didn't seem to be making too many tackles, but it was easy to lose sight of that in the blizzard of highlights. By Christmas he had four tries from four caps.
In 2018 he didn't let up. Ireland would not have won the Grand Slam without him. The try in Twickenham could have only been scored by Stockdale. Would they have beaten New Zealand in November with another winger? The key power play try that day relied on his unique size, speed and footballing ability. It was not on the menu with any other winger. He scored eight tries in that calendar year. The YouTube collection of the Six Nations touchdowns concludes with the question: 'How many will he score in 2019?' Eh, half as many over the year, in one game fewer.
If there was widespread unease about Ireland as they concluded their warm-up programme for the World Cup then Stockdale featured large. You could take your pick of games: kicking off with England in the Six Nations, juggling the ball to allow Elliot Daly to score, right through to the mauling at the hands of the All Blacks in the quarter-final in Japan. There were leaks sprouting from various points in the Stockdale pipeline: positioning, decision-making, clarity of thought under pressure.
The abuse on social media forced him to shut down his Twitter account. The happy-go-lucky little ego trip of googling his name to see what new adjectives of worship popped up became a thing of the past.
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October 31, 2020: Last Saturday in Paris was Jacob Stockdale's 30th Test, his second at fullback. He played centre in school, fullback at under 20, then wing, and now fullback again. In the post-Schmidt world there is less prescription and more freedom to play. It's more about feel than following the designated signposts. With Stockdale this is a bit like giving a kid a box of matches.
If that young fella has a clear set of instructions, a list of party games he can play and those he can't, then your gaff might still be standing when you get back. This is where Dan McFarland and Andy Farrell, Stockdale's babysitters, are positioned now: matches in hand, trying to make their minds up. Given his profile and game time with Ulster and Ireland it's clear they both rate and value their boy. That's nowhere near enough. So have they the tools to coach him?
If they have then they've been slow coming out of the box. We can't think of any Irish player in the modern era as talented as Stockdale yet as much in need of direction. The challenge is to give him parameters without turning him solely down the straight and narrow.
There is a technical side to this and an emotional one. From the moment Farrell named his support staff we questioned the gap where the top level experience was supposed to be. So it's reasonable to ask how well Stockdale is being supported. He is, as an athlete, expected to perform well enough to occupy the mind of Warren Gatland, who has a date in South Africa next summer.Nobody we spoke to last week suggested Jacob Stockdale is not coachable, but somewhere there is a hole in the road. From his days in the Ireland underage system he has been hard on himself in review, steadfast in the belief he is a very good player, but unable to avoid a series of punctures. This is as much a challenge for the garage staff, provincial and national, as the player himself.
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Stockdale 'fronted the media', as our Aussie colleagues would describe those with a case to answer, last week. It was only a few days after Paris. Yes, it was a personal sponsor's gig, but you'd think his agent could have bounced it back in the calendar if the client wanted to keep his head down. Clearly he didn't. A colleague suggested if Stockdale dealt with 'incoming' on the battlefield as readily as he handles the media there would be no story. It was fitting perhaps that the signal was lost a few times in the interview, conducted remotely.
His assets comprise an outrageous ability, and a solid belief in that ability. They don't always go together. It is the presence of the latter that keeps him trying to play rugby even when he's turning mud into manure. Stockdale recognises there is an outcome-based premise to the criticism that has swirled around him on and off for the last year. So if he tries a chip and chase that works, he's a genius. If he tries a chip and chase and the defender reacts a fraction earlier to intercept, and then scores under the black spot, Stockdale is awarded a big red nose, some rouge, and outsized shoes.
Of course in order to reach the outcome you have to follow the process. Players would drive you to distraction banging on about the bloody process. It's the go-to raincoat when questions are raining down. From this perspective it seems Stockdale drifts off occasionally when he's supposed to be poring over the next step in the process. Interestingly, he defended his field positioning in Paris by referring to a different defence system Ireland are using, putting less emphasis on the pendulum effect most look for among your back three. Interesting.
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Those who have known Jacob Stockdale a long time swear by him. Barney McGonigle is one of them. He has a lifetime's involvement across the schools and underage game in Ulster and Ireland. He saw Stockdale's rise through the ranks from close quarters, and managed him on the Ireland under 19 side.
"I think Jacob has already given a lot to Ulster and Irish rugby," he says. "Ulster and Irish rugby need to help Jacob through this difficult time. He would cross the road to talk to you. He would never shy away from a conversation with you. He would never refuse to sign an autograph or sign a jersey. He went to Wallace High School, across the road from where I taught in Friends (Friends' School, Lisburn).
"There would be a bit of rivalry between the two schools - girls or boys hockey, badminton, rugby - whatever. Jacob would have been able to walk across the road, and go past our sixth form to come down to see me in the sports hall, and he'd have got a round of applause. The late Nevin Spence had exactly the same impact. Close rivalry between the two schools, but when our kids saw Nevin or Jacob around the place there was never any hassle."
That doesn't automatically make Stockdale a good rugby player, but peers are good judges. This fella needs fixing, and deserves to be fixed.