'I realised at that point that it's not a nice place to be or a healthy thing to do'

Ireland and Ulster wing Jacob Stockdale says the lockdown has been a blessing in disguise for him.

THE LOCKDOWN HAS been good for Jacob Stockdale, who calls the last few months “a blessing in disguise.”

It has given him a chance to reflect on what has been a genuinely whirlwind few years since his senior Ulster debut in January 2016.

28 Ireland caps, 16 tries. A Grand Slam success. A win over the All Blacks. High-profile errors and high-profile scores. A Six Nations try-scoring record, a try-scoring drought for his province. A Heineken Cup quarter-final, tours of Japan and Australia, and a miserable World Cup last year. Stockdale has packed plenty into his career already.

“It’s been nice to slow down for a while and look back on it all,” says Stockdale before explaining that the lockdown has allowed him to watch virtually every single game he has played in since that Ulster debut against Benetton when he was only 19.

jacob-stockdale-scores-a-try-despite-damian-mckenzie-and-aaron-smith Stockdale has scored 16 tries for Ireland. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

The Ireland international laughs as he mentions some of the “shocking decisions” he made in those early days and jokes that he was lucky to get more than one cap for the province.

There has been a self-critical edge to Stockdale’s review of the games, examining errors like the one against England this year that remains so fresh in the mind, but he admits it has been nice to remind himself of just how good he is at rugby when he’s in form.

“There were things I had forgotten I had actually done,” explains Stockdale, who was speaking in order to promote the launch of mental health charity Aware‘s ‘Phone A Friend’ fundraising campaign.

“I obviously remembered the New Zealand try in 2018 but there are bits where you’re maybe beating a few players, making a linebreak, not scoring and I was looking at it thinking, ‘That’s a great piece of play and I completely forgot I did that.’

“When you’re not playing well, it’s so easy to focus on the negatives and forget the good stuff you did. It’s been nice to watch some of that good stuff back.”

Those little confidence boosters have been timely. Stockdale admits his self-belief took a dent in the wake of the World Cup last year. Ireland were poor and the Ulster wing didn’t show what he was capable of.

“My confidence – my sheer want to take players on, beat them, and score tries – it probably did take a bit of a hit during the World Cup. I didn’t really get going throughout that campaign and I wasn’t scoring the tries that I had been in the past. It was definitely frustrating.

“The frustration of the World Cup led to a drop in confidence. I stopped maybe attacking players as I would have been before. I was almost getting that back at the tail-end of the season there and then this all happened… I’m not beating any defenders at the moment!”

Stockdale admits his own habits played into diminishing the confidence he had built up over the course of Ireland’s stunning 2018.

Like many young players, Stockdale allowed social media and the perceptions of others to have an impact on him. He’s honest in saying that when he first broke onto the scene and people suddenly started to talk about him, he wanted to read everything.

irelands-jacob-stockdale-2322020 Stockdale's confidence dipped after the World Cup. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

But he allowed the habit to grow again more recently, impacting on his mental health.

“It was during the World Cup where I kept reading stuff about myself and it was generally negative, and I’d get really, really annoyed about it.

“But the turning point for me was immediately after the World Cup when Ulster played Munster away [in Thomond Park in November].

“It was one of my poorer games. I got into the changing room and before I even replied to my family, before I text my girlfriend, I went on Twitter to see what people were saying about me.

“At that point, I just copped myself on and said, ‘This is not just unhealthy from a rugby point of view but unhealthy from a mental health point of view and living a normal life.’

“I said screw this, deleted the Twitter app off my phone and I haven’t had it on my phone in about nine or 10 months and I have no intention of going back on it. It’s just not a healthy place to be when you’re basing your game off opinions of people who don’t know as much about rugby as I do.”

The feedback on Twitter had become extremely negative and, in some instances, vile.

“Some people would be very harsh, saying ‘Jacob Stockdale is not good enough at this level’ and it would all be rugby-based.

“But you’d get other people… after the World Cup quarter-final, I had people telling me to kill myself. Horrible, horrible stuff.

“Weirdly enough, people telling me to kill myself didn’t bother me as much as people saying I wasn’t good at rugby, if that makes sense. I knew the people telling me to kill myself are just complete trolls trying to get a reaction out of you.

“But when people genuinely thought I wasn’t a good rugby player, that really annoyed me. I realised at that point that it’s not a nice place to be or a healthy thing to do, so I stopped all of it.”

Now Twitter-less and armed with the knowledge of exactly how he has played over the last four years, Stockdale is determined to continue his development as a player when rugby resumes, potentially with inter-provincial games in August.

PEYE 270520KB1   0012 Stockdale at home with his Mustang during the lockdown. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye. / Press Eye.

He has been working hard on his kicking, which has already been bearing fruit at the highest level with his attacking chips. Like everything else in his game, Stockdale thinks it can get better.

“I’m pretty rangy, so whenever I catch the ball it tends to go. I’ve been working really hard on getting that consistency. I would have a tendency to maybe overhit the ball, maybe slice it into touch or put it down the middle of the pitch by accident.

“I’ve been working on that over this period, getting the consistency where I’m getting nine out of 10 really good, clean kicks rather than six or seven out of 10.”

His decision-making skills and concentration will likely only grow as he gets even more experience, while the 6ft 3ins wing underlines that he will continue to work hard to be a better athlete – even down to his sprinting technique.

“That’s always an ongoing thing for me because I’m pretty lanky and probably don’t have a natural sprinter’s build. I definitely did have to learn how to run fast. The S&C guys in Ulster have been brilliant in developing my running style.

“I’d say it’s now a lot better than what it has been, even two or three years ago, but it’s something I’m always going to be working on.”

Perhaps most importantly, the lockdown period has helped Stockdale to figure out what works best for him mentally.

“The games where I’ve played best, I’ve gone in just focusing on myself, not worrying about the opposition, trying to talk crap to the opposition, get inside their head or anything like that. That works for some players and I get that, but it doesn’t work for me.

“What works best for me is when I focus on myself before and during the game. Whenever I do that, I can naturally take players on a bit more and generally have a better game.

“Rugby is a very skillful game and, at times, a complicated game. But it can also be a very simple game at times. Get the ball, run, try and run past defenders, score tries. It can be as simple as that.”

jacob-stockdale-celebrates-his-try Stockdale is looking forward to getting back to his best. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Refreshed, hungry, and feeling more confident, Stockdale is excited to get back on the pitch and start doing what he does best again.

There will be a hectic time ahead with Ulster and Ireland, with James Lowe qualifying in November meaning another strong contender out wide in Andy Farrell’s squad.

“I can’t wait,” says Stockdale. “James Lowe coming in is definitely an added bit of competition. He’s a super player but I love that, I love having that competition. I think it brings out the best in me and the other Irish wingers in the set-up. It’s exciting times.”

And if Stockdale can copper-fasten his place in the Ireland team and play his best rugby next season, there is a Lions tour to South Africa next summer that would certainly appeal.

“There’s a lot of rugby to be played between now and the Lions tour but it’s definitely in the back of the head in terms of pushing myself in training and doing that extra rep I might not have done otherwise,” says Stockdale.”

“From when I was a kid, I loved watching all the Lions series. Sky Sports have replayed them over the last while and I have watched every game. It’s a class rugby spectacle whether you’re there or not.”

Maxol brand ambassador Jacob Stockdale was launching the Phone A Friend fundraising campaign for mental health charity, Aware.

Maxol and Aware, which is in urgent need of funds are asking the public to text ‘Phone A Friend’ to 50300 to donate €4.

They are also asking the public to pick up the phone to call a friend or neighbour, because sometimes a simple chat can be a lifeline.

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