Jacob Stockdale was just 13 years of age when he saw his Ireland heroes claim Ireland’s Grand Slam of 2009.
The thought of training and playing alongside stars such as Tommy Bowe for Ulster was just a fantasy back then as he watched the finale against Wales on the family sofa in Banbridge, so no wonder there is an element of surrealism for the 21-year-old wing as he prepares to run out for a ninth Test appearance this weekend in search of some Grand Slam glory of his own.
“It’s weird to realise I’m at this level now and playing regularly in the Six Nations,” Stockdale said. “If you told me that a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed it.
“On the other hand, I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, putting in good performances for Ulster and Ireland U20s, stuff like that. So I feel like I have built towards it but I’m pretty pleased at how it has accelerated more than I expected.”
Acceleration is an apt term given Stockdale’s speedy rise to the top and the pace he has exhibited in the Six Nations thus far.
A championship debut against France in Paris on February 3 having made his Ireland bow on last summer’s tour to the United States and Japan, he has bagged two tries in each of the home games against Italy, Wales, and Scotland to move to the top of the try-scoring charts in this season’s tournament and equal the Six Nations record of six tries set by Will Greenwood in 2001, Shane Williams in 2008 and Chris Ashton in 2011.
Just one more against England at Twickenham on Saturday and Stockdale will be out on his own but the player insisted that was a feat he was not willing to consider.
“I’m not thinking of that. I’m focusing on the game and performing as well as I can for myself and the team. And then if that comes up, happy days.”
If Stockdale were to touch down at Twickenham and raise his try tally to 11 in nine Ireland appearances, his seven Six Nations scores would equal another hero: Andrew Trimble’s championship total from 32 appearances in the competition.
Not that would take any of the gloss off the rising star’s reverence for the wings who shaped his dreams and then his career.
“Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, as a young lad and a back growing up at schoolboy level, then club level, these are the guys you aspired to be and they were huge role models for me. They’ve been really good mentors for me in the professional game as well.
“Luckily they haven’t sabotaged me! They’re really nice guys as well.
“A little chat from (Bowe) in particular and he has given me a few pointers, bits of advice. To be honest, I found him most helpful leading up to this. He taught me how to play in the professional game, being there from my first year in the Academy.
"He’s been massively helpful. It’s been really important not to get wound up about making mistakes or having a bad game.
"You just kick on when you have a bad game. If you focus too long on it, you can get yourself into a slump and then you are playing bad game after bad game.
“It’s something I’ve found quite easy. By Sunday afternoon or Monday morning, say ‘Right, dust yourself off and let’s get stuck into the next week.’
”To have already won a championship after four games is a testament to Ireland’s superiority in 2018 and for many in Joe Schmidt’s squad it is a third title in five seasons.
"Yet for Stockdale, there was only “a weird feeling, mixed emotions” as he savoured his first Test competition success around a dinner table following last Saturday’s 28-8 victory over the Scots, having then seen title rivals England fall to the French. Even at 21, the wing realised there were bigger objectives still in play.
“We were at our post-match dinner when France beat England; we had a bit of a celebration but that was it. You kind of sit down and say we are the Six Nations champions but at the same time we want to go over to England and we want to get a Grand Slam.”
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