The trajectory of Jacob Stockdale’s career since bursting onto the scene with a try against South Africa in his first home international has been a constant upward curve.
Unfortunately for the Ulster winger, Saturday’s game-changing slip-up against Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final marks the first major setback of his career as the northern province crashed out of Europe’s elite competition in a game that many feel they ought to have won.
Stockdale may be hurting now, but his captain at both provincial and international level, Rory Best, has no doubts that the 22-year-old will bounce back even stronger following Saturday’s heartbreaking defeat.
“He’ll use this and he’ll bounce back. He’s bitterly disappointed but unfortunately, it’s something that you have to get used to.” said Best at the launch of the Specsavers Audiologists’ ‘Don’t Suffer in Silence’ campaign.
“If you’re going to be a top-level professional rugby player, you’re going to have some bitter disappointments along the way and probably what sets apart the ones who stay around the longest and the ones who achieve the most are the ones that bounce back strongest. From what I’ve seen of Jacob Stockdale so far, I’ve no doubt he will bounce back.”
Stockdale has come in for a fair amount of criticism following the mistake, but he’s also been backed to the hilt by many within the game, such his is try-scoring talent.
However, had it not been for his costly error, Stockdale could well have been taking home the Man of the Match award for his performance following a legendary aerial battle between himself and Adam Byrne.
“The problem with it is when you look at that one moment in isolation, there’s been a bit of criticism.” said Best.
“When you look at his game, it’s almost a scenario of if he dots that ball down, he’s potentially the man of the match because I thought his battle with Adam Byrne was one of the, if you’re a rugby purist and you like the wing play, that was probably one of the greatest battles between two wingers and I thought Jacob was absolutely incredible all game.
“Ultimately, he’s a finisher and he knows himself but from what I’ve seen of Jacob over the last 18 months is, he’s very good at trying to be better, coming back as Six Nations Player of the Year and he was great for us because he wanted to be better, he didn’t just want to be good for Ireland, we wanted to be good for Ulster.”
The morning after the game, Stockdale took to Instagram to apologise to the Ulster fans following the game describing it as a ‘low’ for him.
View this post on Instagram
I’ve had some incredible highs with Ulster rugby, but unfortunately yesterday was a low for me. Sport can be cruel and sometimes you have to learn your lessons the hard way. To the Ulster fans I just want to say I am sorry, I let you down, the support we had yesterday was truly amazing and you deserve to be looking forward to a European semi final.
In an era where moments like this are hard to escape from because of social media, Best commended the young winger for meeting it head-on.
“Definitely, it’s harder to escape it, there’s no doubt. I think Jacob did the right thing. It’s not necessarily what I would do, social media is not something I utilise to the best of my ability, but I think Jacob met it head on and he put a statement out and I think people appreciated the fact that he did it.
“Sometimes people forget that there is a human being on the other side of all the abuse and I think his statement on social media showed that human side of it. I think when you actually get to the human side of it, it leaves it a lot harder to troll and abuse someone.
“You remember that that’s somebody’s son, that’s somebody’s best friend, that’s somebody’s brother, and I think that’s what Jacob did well, he got across what we got to witness in the changing room afterwards, how heartbroken he was for the team that he has grown up all his life wanting to play for.”
In terms of seeing how heartbroken he was after the game, Best admitted that Stockdale himself requested to speak to the group following the 21-18 loss to their provincial rivals.
Best allowed Stockdale to take the floor and address his Ulster teammates who at the end of the day will always have his back.
“He came over to me when the boys were doing the lap and he apologised and said ‘I want to speak in the changing room.’ So I said ‘what for?’ and he said ‘you know what for, I need to apologise.’ I said ‘you don’t need to apologise because with the way you played and some of the moments you had in that game and there are very few wingers who would even be across to try that’ and he said he needed to.
“It’s also important that the players feel that, they take responsibility, but they have their message the way they want it. I said ‘if you’re sure you want to do it, by all means you can have the floor’. He said something along the lines of what he said on social media and it was like a moment in the House of Commons, there was uproar in the changing room, everyone was trying to back him up but we just have to calm down.
“This Ulster squad for the last 12 months, we’ve based a lot of what we do around how strong collectively we are and this is just an example of ‘let’s see how strong we can be’ and how we bounce back together. No one would ever hang a player as good as Jacob and as likeable as Jacob.”
Overall, Best has no doubt that Stockdale will learn from the mistake and come back stronger.
“Jacob will take a learning from it; whether it’s how he changes the way he scores or if he’s more aware of his surroundings or what, I don’t know, that will be for him to learn from.
“In terms of try-scoring ability, he would be one of the last people that I would be criticising.”