Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# Ambition
'I don’t want to be 24 or 25 and not starting for my club team'
Ireland U20s back Jacob Stockdale is an ambitious young Irish rugby player.

JACOB STOCKDALE IS very much a modern young Irish professional rugby player.

He is confident in his ability and not afraid to back it. The 19-year-old is currently preparing for the start of Ireland’s World Rugby U20 Championship campaign in Manchester – his second year at this level – but he is already ambitious for the future.

Jacob Stockdale is tackled by Aled Thomas and Gareth Owen Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO Stockdale burst through at Ulster this season. Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO / Darren Kidd/INPHO

The imposing Newtonstewart man made his senior Ulster debut this season under Les Kiss, coming off the bench in a Guinness Pro12 clash with Treviso. Stockdale went on to start five games on the left wing for the northern province, very much looking at home.

Even after a highly-promising start, Stockdale understands that the hard work lies ahead for him. With Charles Piutau arriving in Belfast this summer, the province’s already strong depth in the back three will only increase.

The likes of Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble provide wing competition, while Ulster’s depth in the centre is well known. At fullback – where Stockdale is likely to line up for the Ireland U20s – there’s Piutau, Louis Ludik and Peter Nelson.

Stockdale will do everything in his power to make himself a success with the province he has dreamed of playing for, but he is not the kind of player or personality who is happy to sit and wait for too long.

I have a lot of aspirations for my career and I don’t want to be 24 or 25 and not starting for my club team,” says the Belfast Harlequins man.

“Obviously, I’m going to try and do my best to push through at Ulster because that’s where I grew up. That’s the team I want to play for the most but at the same time, I do need to keep my options open and see what happens really.”

The World U20 Championship is another platform for Stockdale to impress upon Ulster and Kiss, or whoever else is watching, that his potential marks him out.

“It is definitely [an opportunity],” says Stockdale. “There’s a number of players that get picked up by a whole range of clubs after the U20s. The likes of an Ulster lad, Chris Farrell, a couple of years ago.

Jacob Stockdale Donall Farmer / INPHO Stockdale will play in his second World Championship at U20 level. Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

“He got picked up by Grenoble after the U20s. Not that I’m looking to move clubs or anything, but it does showcase talents and it shows coaches what you can do.”

While young Irish players have been happy to sit at their home provinces in the past and not amass too much in the way of game time, a shift is afoot.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora has been promoting the prospect of inter-provincial transfers as a means to ensuring the best young talent is provided with playing opportunity and the mindset is changing.

Cian Kelleher is heading west to Connacht from Leinster next season, while Stockdale’s good friend and Ulster team-mate Sam Arnold – who misses the U20 Championship due to a hamstring injury – will be with Munster.

“We’ve been dead close because we both came into the academy at the same time, played U20s together,” says Stockdale.

“He’d be one of my best friends up in Ulster but he has to do what’s right for him, and if that’s moving to Munster, then I can’t argue with his logic there.”

Indeed, Stockdale feels that young players in Ireland and elsewhere are increasingly open to the idea of moving away from home. The 6’3″ back, who says he enjoys playing outside centre most of all, thinks the increase in money in the sport is one reason behind that.

“I think it is just kind of how professional rugby is getting. You’re starting to see lads who are getting paid like £500,000 or £750,000 a year, and you’re just seeing players move clubs.

Charles Piutau Andrew Fosker / INPHO Piutau arrives in Belfast this summer from Wasps. Andrew Fosker / INPHO / INPHO

“Irish players going out to France and England, and that kind of stuff. I think it’s a good thing for the game. I think it gives players an opportunity to play in different parts of the world and start with club teams.

“I think with just how professional rugby has gotten, that’s why more players are deciding there’s more rugby to be played than just with their home club.”

Piutau is a case in point, leaving behind an All Blacks career to earn big money at Ulster. For their part, the province get a world-class fullback who has shone in his season with Wasps before the move to Belfast this summer.

“You know, he’s probably one of the in-form players in Europe, if not in the world, right now,” says Stockdale. “I’ve got a lot to learn from him.”

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“It’s a bit 50-50,” he continues. “It’s brilliant that Ulster are getting one of the best players in the world, and I’m going to get to train with him and learn from him and that kind of stuff.

“Another side of you is thinking ‘he’s another face that I have to contend with.’”

Those concerns have been put aside for now, as Stockdale looks to help Nigel Carolan’s Ireland U20s to impress at the World Championship in Manchester.

They come up against Grand Slam holders Wales in their tournament opener on Tuesday [KO 5.30pm, TG4] and Stockdale is feeling confident that he can be effective after his breakthrough at senior level with Ulster.

The key learning he took from playing in last year’s tournament was the importance of recovery in the four-day spells in between games.

Jacob Stockdale Ryan Byrne / INPHO Stockdale will be a key man for Ireland. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Stockdale feels this Ireland group, though not hugely heralded, have enough belief to cause an upset or two in a pool that also includes champions New Zealand and the improving Georgia.

“I’m not sure if there’s the same recognisable names as there was in the team last year, but there’s a real strong kind of team ethos there and I haven’t been in a team yet, except for this team, that are willing to work for each other as hard as these guys do.

“At the same time, I  there are a couple of young lads who are superstars, like Bill [Johnston] and the likes of Johnny McPhillips and these kind of guys.

“Bill and Johnny are both a year young and they’re 10s. It’s pretty impressive that they can run the games as well as they do.”

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