Walking around the Kingspan Stadium during the week, you got a sense that this Ulster squad mean business ahead of their interprovincial clash with Munster at Thomond Park on Saturday evening.
I arrived around mid-afternoon, as the players were finishing up a gym session. As I approached the Aquinas end of the ground, Andrew Trimble strolls out. A quick nod and hello and the winger drives off after another hard day’s work.
However, it was another winger I was looking for that day as I was here to give Jacob Stockdale his Pundit Arena Sportsman Of The Month Award for March. When you consider some of the accolades, nominations and praise the 22-year-old has received throughout the season, such an award might pale in comparison to what the young man from Newtownstewart has achieved since making his Ireland debut last June.
However, he is only delighted to receive the award as he pops his head out of the family stand and invites me in with that trademark smile we have all seen from his try-scoring exploits. A quick stroll to an empty seminar room follows. It’s filled with those desk-chair combinations you would find in school [a rather surprising choice of furniture considering the average size of professional rugby players]. It’s only when you’re standing beside the Ulster flyer that you get an appreciation of the sheer size which he is carrying around.
Anyway, we get ourselves settled and it seems that the only place to start is for Stockdale to try to sum up what the last 10 months have been like for him.
“It’s going pretty quick! It’s flown. It’s been exciting and fun every step of the way. I’ve had games where I haven’t played as well and luckily I’ve had a lot of games where I have played well, yeah just trying to keep it going until the end of the season and hopefully for the summer tour of Ireland.”
If you needed a reminder of what Stockdale has achieved since last summer then here it is. He made his try-scoring and senior debut for Ireland against the USA in June and also won his second cap against Japan two weeks later. He scored three tries against South Africa and Argentina during the November internationals and then went on to play every game of the Six Nations, breaking the record for most tries scored in the tournament with a final haul of seven.
His performances and try-scoring record in the Six Nations led to him winning the Six Nations Player Of The Tournament. With a Grand Slam and Triple Crown to his name, he has also been nominated for the Nevin Spence Young Player of the Year Award.
At the beginning of the season, Stockdale had no idea about the path he was about to travel down. Looking back, the youngster had some pretty modest expectations for the season ahead – modest with the benefit of hindsight.
“At the start of the season, in a hopeful thinking sense, I was thinking I’d be able to fight my way onto a bench spot in the November internationals and maybe the Six Nations,” Stockdale said.
“I had no idea, I could have never have predicted that way it has gone. I’m pretty thankful that it has gone as well as it did and I’m just trying to keep going.”
The furore and hype around Stockdale couldn’t be more different now compared to when he made his Irish debut last summer. Sure, Stockdale was always a player marked for the future ever since he was powering his way through the age grades for the Ulster and Ireland U18s and then onto the Ireland U20s where he played an important role in that historic win over the All Blacks en route to a World Cup final appearance.
But now, the interest around Stockdale is not just confined to those within Irish rugby circles, his name is known across the rugby landscape all over the world and he now has to deal with an unprecedented level of attention. In addition to this, Stockdale now has plenty of personal accolades such as being awarded the Six Nations player of the tournament but in typically humble fashion, the personal achievements are not what motivates him.
“To be honest, the individual accolades have never been…they’re a nice icing on the cake I guess but they’ve never been something that is that important to me. Like, if we had won a Grand Slam and I hadn’t played as well, I wouldn’t have cared. I still would have gotten the silverware and would have been able to enjoy it with everybody else. Whereas if it had been the other way around, I would have been really disappointed.
“They’re a nice shine on everything but I think you could easily fall over yourself, it’s better just to keep working, to be honest.”
Stockdale does admit that though that it’s nice to be rewarded for the hard work that he puts in.
“It’s only really the players that are in here [Ulster] that would see the work everybody puts in, not just myself. But to be rewarded for the work that you put in, you know, Monday morning to Friday afternoon, Saturday afternoon…That’s the stuff that makes your week and determines how you play so to be rewarded for how you do that is really good yeah.”
Our chat begins to turn to the fortunes of Ulster this season and their disappointing performances which has led the northern province scrapping for a playoff place and potential Champions Cup qualification through a one-off fixture against a team in Conference A of the Guinness PRO14. I ask Stockdale whether the problems which Ulster have faced on the pitch have taken the gloss off his season somewhat. He was quick to shoot me down on that one.
“No, not particularly. I see what I have achieved with Ireland and what I have achieved with Ulster as two very different things. It’s hard to compare the two of them because they’re two very different things. When you’re with Ireland you are in this wee eight-week bubble and all that matters is the Six Nations and once that’s done, you forget about Ireland.
“With Ulster, it’s from September through to May time and pre-season, Ulster is where I spend most of my time and most of my season – it’s been a frustrating season for us but at the moment now, things feel pretty good, in training and on the pitch…we’re training well and putting in performances. Things are starting to click which is actually a really good feeling.”
He’s not wrong. Ulster have won their last three games of the Guinness PRO14 and look a different side to the one which struggled throughout most of the season. It certainly seems the case that the squad wish there were more games left in the season.
“Yeah, to be honest,” Stockdale said. We’re all thirsty for a few more games so let’s hope we get them.”
We have a brief chat about the fortunes of Munster and Leinster in the Champions Cup semi-finals and based on what Stockdale has seen, he says it would be foolish for anyone to write off Racing 92 against Leinster in the final.
As the interview nears its end, we speak about the future and whether there is now added pressure on the 22-year-old to perform due to his achievements this season.
“Yeah, you do feel a wee bit more pressure to perform and you can do one of two things with that pressure. You can shy away from it and let it break you down to the point where you don’t have a good game or accept there’s going to be some pressure on you and enjoy it. There’s a reason why that pressure is there, it’s because you’re playing well. You want to keep that form going and keep those performances going and the only way to do that is to work hard, prepare well during the week and put in a performance at the weekend.”
It might seem like a cliché but preparing well during the week certainly seems the best way to perform at the weekend. That point hits home as one of Ulster’s physiotherapists is keen to get some time with Stockdale to get him 100% ready to do some damage to Munster on Saturday evening. A sympathetic nod is given and we try to wrap up the interview as quickly as we can.
We speak more about that pressure and how it can affect players but Stockdale believes that even if he has a bad game, which he admits he has had throughout the season, the most important thing is how you react to it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really felt the pressure getting the best of me. Yeah, I’ve had bad games this season and the season before that and the season before that, everybody has bad games and they happen but I think it’s about how you bounce back from those games and how you deal with the disappointment of losing – working, so you say to yourself ‘I don’t want that to ever happen again’ and how to prevent it from happening again.”
Looking ahead, there are no shortage of goals on the horizon for Stockdale. A summer tour of Australia in June is just around the corner and then, of course, 2019 brings the much anticipated Rugby World Cup. However, the winger doesn’t believe in looking too far ahead. His goal-setting is very much in the short-term and he believes that is one of the key reasons for him to be able to perform at such a high level.
“I like to keep my goals fairly short-term. You’re always just looking ahead to the next block of games or the next big thing so I suppose for me right now it’s Munster on Saturday, that will determine what my goals are for the next four or five weeks. Whether it’s a playoff option in the PRO14, whether it’s just making sure we’re back in Europe and then looking on from that it will be summer tour and hopefully getting away to Australia with Ireland.
“To be honest, I don’t set my goals much further than that because there’s no point in setting goals for November when you can be injured then and for me, it’s just short-term goals and then once you achieve that you move the goalposts and you go again.
“Yeah for me, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in the summer of 2019, I might not be playing rugby in 2019, I hope I am! But, for me, it’s just a little chunk of time at a time and trying to improve every single chunk and making yourself better with that.”
For a player to have such a strong philosophy on the game at such a young age is incredibly refreshing and for Stockdale, you get a sense that if he keeps this mentality then there are no limits to what he can achieve in his career.