Finishing school: Jacob Stockdale takes talents to Rugby World Cup

Finishing school: Jacob Stockdale takes talents to Rugby World Cup

There is a new entry in the top ten. Still just 23-years-old, still coming to terms with that difficult second season, he has the potential to knock Brian O’Driscoll out of the way and top the charts.

That’s according to Tommy Bowe who played with Jacob Stockdale in his breakthrough year at Ulster, got to know him as a friend, now scrutinises him as a pundit, and also, with a certain amount of awe. It really should be the opposite way around, Stockdale the prodigy, Bowe the pathfinder. But the man who finished his international career as the second-highest try scorer in Irish rugby history has been hugely impressed by the assurance of someone so young.

“You always hear the words, ‘ah, he’s 23, it’ll stop soon – because that is what happened to many other breakthrough players, including me,” Bowe said. “Like, I’ll never forget what I went through at the start of my career, getting my first cap at 20, lacking confidence, having an absolute hames of a match against France, getting zero out of ten in one of the newspapers, really starting to question myself. It took me four years to find confidence. It’s taken Jacob about four minutes. He’s got off to such a flier in his international career that there’s no doubt in my mind he has the potential to do something special. Like, put it this way, if he keeps going the way he is, he won’t just be Ireland’s all-time try-scorer; he’ll be up there with the best worldwide.”

If this seems a little excitable on Bowe’s behalf then perhaps some context is needed. Already, just 21 caps into his international career, Stockdale has scored 16 tries for Ireland. Only nine Irishmen have more; Keith Crossan finishing on 12, Simon Geoghegan on 11, Trevor Ringland, Simon Zebo and Mike Gibson on nine. After 21 caps, Bowe had nine tries on the board, the same number Denis Hickie had at the same juncture of his career. O’Driscoll had 11 after 16 games, while Keith Earls and Shane Horgan had 16 between them.

On a world level, out of the six leading try-scorers from Tier One rugby history, only Shane Williams, 19 tries from his first 21 internationals, set a faster pace. None of Bryan Habana, David Campese, O’Driscoll, Rory Underwood or Doug Howlett had more than 15.

“Jacob amazes me,” Bowe says, “because he’s confident yet he’s grounded. It’s helped he had myself, Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy at Ulster to guide him — then Rob (Kearney) and Keith (Earls) with Ireland, because no matter how good you are, you do need a bit of guidance.

“Like, I remember having chats with him in his first year, when he was getting scrutiny for his defending. He was beginning to wonder why people were having a pop at him, but it was a simple message to relay. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘you are so good in the air, so good in attack, they have to pick holes somewhere. Don’t listen to outside noise’. To be fair he hasn’t.”

Lately, the noise became deafening, after a horror show at Twickenham exposed Stockdale’s defensive frailties. But a week later, he ended a three-game mini-drought to score twice. “The best players are those who get written off and come back better and better,” Bowe said.

“Jacob is showing signs. If he keeps going the way he is, if he stays fit — and in today’s game, with collisions being so tough, it’s hard to know if you can get to 132 caps, as Brian did. But if he does stay injury free, there is no doubt he’ll be up there.”

O’Driscoll concurs. The Ireland legend knows all about carrying the hopes of a nation. The difference now is that Stockdale has plenty of other players to share the burden with. More to the point, there are also some who believe his reputation exceeds his ability.

“Well that is unfair on him,” O’Driscoll said. “Like, when I hear people saying he’s lucky, it makes me scratch my head. It’s grossly unfair, simple as that. For me, Jacob looks like a player who will beat the first man every time he gets the ball. That’s the first thing. The second thing is his kick and chase — the strength of that attacking weapon is unbelievable. But we can’t forget that he is such a threat with ball in hand. He has a big presence, a lot of power, so he should not be afraid to hold onto the ball. He should make that the mainstay of what he does.”

With Stockdale, however, there is a variety of weapons. His match-winning try against the All Blacks and key score in the grand slam game at Twickenham came via a kick and chase, as indeed did his first try as a professional, for Ulster against Dragons.

“There’s no doubt he has got the bounce of the ball at times doing this, like he did against Wales a couple of weeks ago,” Bowe said. “But the key to being a finisher is being in the right place not at the right time — but in the right place every time. You see Johnny zipping the pass across and Jacob happens to be there. Well, the thing is he’s there five, six times but may not have got the pass. As an attacker, your job is to be there before the defender. A defender will react; an attacker has to gamble. Jacob’s a clever gambler.”

Still, it is not the only club in his bag. Three of his international tries (his second against Italy last year, second against Wales a fortnight later and then first against Scotland) have been intercepts. Another three have come from set-piece moves, all created by Johnny Sexton (Scotland two weeks ago, his brace against Argentina in November 2017). Sexton, again, was the creator for his second try against Scotland at the Aviva last year, when Stockdale was disciplined with his positioning, hugging the touchline before finishing from close range, similar to the tries he scored against the United States on his debut, South Africa in November 2017 and his first against Wales last month.

“There’s stardust in there, no doubt,” Dan McFarland, his Ulster coach, said.

The world is about to see for themselves.

Tommy Bowe is an ambassador for Emirates, a worldwide partner for the Rugby World Cup

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