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Why I have my parents to thank for rise to rugby stardom, explains Jacob Stockdale

Ulster's Jacob Stockdale.
Ulster's Jacob Stockdale.
Double top: Graeme and Janine Stockdale, parents of Ulster and Ireland rugby ace, Jacob, collect the Malcolm Brodie Player of the Year award Willie John McBride and sponsor presenter Paula Quinn, Recruitment Manager at Celerion
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Having scooped a prestigious double of the Malcolm Brodie Player of the Year and the George Best Breakthrough prizes at last night's Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards, Ulster star Jacob Stockdale had two important people to thank.

A model of politeness, the 21-year-old has been ever gracious during his rise to rugby stardom, and has already spoken, somewhat sheepishly, about the influence of heroes turned team-mates like Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, as well as highlighting the role played by figures such as Wallace High coach Derek Suffern during his early development.

But after last night's dual gongs, the first people on his mind were far from the rugby pitch or the gym, but his biggest supporters right from day one - his mum and dad.

"Two people who have been massive influences on me are my parents," said the 21-year-old, currently preparing for the upcoming Six Nations.

"My mum and dad never forced me to do anything I didn't want to do, and always supported me really well in everything that I did want to do.

"My mum was probably tearing her hair out when she thought rugby and the Schools' Cup was taking precedence over my A-levels, but she never forced me into being anything other than what or who I wanted to be.

"Whenever I decided that I wanted to give professional rugby a shot, they were so supportive too. They're superb and I'm really lucky to have them."

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Double top: Graeme and Janine Stockdale, parents of Ulster and Ireland rugby ace, Jacob, collect the Malcolm Brodie Player of the Year award Willie John McBride and sponsor presenter Paula Quinn, Recruitment Manager at Celerion

Stockdale's success last night was due reward for plenty of hard work - to a man, senior pros in the Ulster set-up marvelled at his work-ethic after he refused to rest on his laurels at any stage of his breakout campaign - and capped off what he described as a "rollercoaster" year.

Having seemed a real talent when making his Ulster debut in 2016, it has been over the last 12 months when his career really took off, with the tries accordingly coming at a rate of knots.

Becoming a fixture in the senior panel at Kingspan Stadium, making a try-scoring international bow for Ireland against the USA over the summer, and then holding onto his green jersey for an eye-catching autumn that included yet more tries - this time against South Africa and Argentina - have all been moments that will live long in the memory.

Having first stood out for Wallace High School as a precociously talented teen, winning the Danske Bank Ulster Schools' Player of the Year in 2014 before a starring role for the Irish Under-20s, it's easy to forget sometimes that this is a player who almost gave up the sport when, at the age of 15 and standing at only 5ft 5in, he was struggling to make much headway in trying to crack his school's first XV.

Thankfully for him, Ulster and indeed Ireland, a late growth spurt helped spark what has been one of the sport's most remarkably rapid rises of recent times in this part of the world.

Throughout the entire journey, one that started at just four-years-old when he first pitched up at Ballynahinch RFC minis, it has been his family who have kept him grounded, even if he admits that his mother Janine, a doctor in midwifery, had to give him something of a scolding recently after what appeared to be a somewhat patronising patting of an opponent's head as he attempted to diffuse a scuffle in Ulster's recent European triumph over French side La Rochelle.

It was not just a love of rugby that was passed on from his family - both grandfather Ivan and his father Graeme played the game for Ballyclare RFC - but also a strong Christian faith.

With his father starting out as a minister before taking up his current role as a chaplain in the prison service working in Maghaberry, it is something that has been important to his young son from an early age.

"My dad, growing up, he was a minister, so I always grew up in a church environment, a Christian environment," explained Stockdale. "So it's something that's always been important to my life, and our life as a family."

Indeed, Stockdale now displays those twin pillars in each game he plays having had a cross tattooed on his arm last year, with each point marked by an initial. J and G for his parents, and an H and L for his sisters Hannah and Lydia who are, as Stockdale puts it, "the brains of the operation".

While he jokes that the unusual surname means his younger siblings don't always appreciate being asked if they are any relation to the man seen tearing it up for Ulster and Ireland, there is no doubt that in Jacob, the whole clan have someone of whom to be immensely proud.

With preparations for Ireland's game with France in Paris on Saturday, the first game of the Six Nations Championship, ramping up apace this week, the man of the moment was unable to be at the Waterfront Hall in person last night, but after humbly apologising for his absence said he hoped to make the next 12 months just as noteworthy as the last.

"To be nominated was an incredible honour and to find out I've won them now is something pretty special as well," he said.

"I suppose it's a combination of things that went my way, and a lot of hard work as well. It has all culminated in a pretty incredible year for me. It's been a whirlwind but it's been really good fun.

"I was doing my best to make sure I could be there, but hopefully if you're going to miss it for any reason then preparing for the Six Nations is a valid one.

"The big thing coming up is the Six Nations and that's a massive target for me. To say that I've played in the Six Nations, or to even take that further and say that I've a Six Nations medal a few months from now, is something that would be pretty amazing, especially at the age I am."

For the rising star of Ulster and Irish Rugby, it seems that 2017 was just the beginning.

Belfast Telegraph


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