‘I showed Andy Farrell I’m not a diva’

There’s a famous Rocky Balboa quote about how hard a person can get hit and continue to move forward and by November 2022, Jacob Stockdale was fed up of being punched in the face.

There was the grave ankle injury that took a year of rugby from him and required stem cells to be harvested from his hip. The arduous rehabilitation and setbacks along the way. The abuse of internet trolls and the self-inflicted torture of searching his own name on social media, knowing deep down he wouldn’t like what he’d find. The fall from swaggering Grand Slam kingpin to the international doldrums.

Stockdale is a Formula One winger but while he sat in the pit lane, Mack Hansen, James Lowe and Hugo Keenan screamed past him and made themselves indispensable, undroppable members of Andy Farrell’s Ireland backline.

When he finally got his body right, and won back his place in the national camp, it felt like salvation. All would be well again. And then the team was announced and his name was nowhere to be seen.

Stockdale ran in a Six Nations-record seven tries during the 2018 campaign (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

“The injury, I wouldn’t say was the toughest point – that was out of my control,” Stockdale tells RugbyPass. “The hardest part was just about getting fit that autumn and naively, I thought I was going to play and everything would be great. I ended up not playing. That was really difficult.

“Up until that point if I’d been fit, I’d played. I was going, flip, I’m not as high up the pecking order as I thought anymore. I reacted to that in quite a poor manner. I don’t like to say I was phoning it in, because that’s not true, but I probably didn’t apply myself as fully, 100% as I could have, and that was a massive mistake.

“When you do that, coaches pick up on it and Faz didn’t play me in any of the other games. He was absolutely right to do so.”

Part of this torment stems from Stockdale’s thunderous arrival in the Test arena. He was the darling of Ireland’s 2018 Slam, his seven tries unprecedented in the Six Nations era. His epic earned Ireland a maiden home win over New Zealand eight months later, an iconic moment in Irish sporting history. He won his first 14 Test matches. A 6ft 4ins thoroughbred with the rugby world at his feet.

Someone told me, you wouldn’t go to a random punter in the street for medical advice so why would you go to a random punter for rugby advice?

Then came the body blows. Fumbling the ball over the line in a Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster in the Aviva, when a try would have given Ulster at least a seven-point cushion. There were shaky days on the wing and in the less familiar full-back role. His ankle went and with it, 51 weeks of competitive action. The keyboard legions lined up to take their shots.

Eventually, Stockdale abandoned Twitter and restricted his Instagram. He went to performance psychologists at his club and in the national setup and together, they drilled into his game.

“It’s a natural thing to search for things about yourself – if you’ve played well, you want to see nice things being said. But there are going to be people who want to attack you, people who are just not going to like anything you do. That’s okay, those people exist, but it’s foolish to go looking for them. I learned that the hard way.

“I stopped reading anything about myself. I’m off social media completely and that’s a really healthy thing for a professional athlete. Someone told me, you wouldn’t go to a random punter in the street for medical advice; you’re an expert in your field so why would you go to a random punter for rugby advice? Understanding that and making decisions to avoid it was good for me.

“I’ve done a lot of work on myself with the psychologists to understand what makes me feel confident and what encourages good performances.

“A major thing I found was focusing on fundamentals, particularly as a winger, when there are going to be games in wet and windy conditions and you don’t touch the ball much. How do I make sure, if I’m not getting opportunities to make big plays, I still put in a good performance: tackle quality, ball security, getting up well in the air? In the past I would perhaps have made a couple of mistakes, not made a big play, and it’s been talked about that I’ve had a poor performance.”

Stockdale has been in brilliant form for Ulster this season as Dan McFarland develops his team’s attacking ethos (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Family and faith are his two great pillars. The Ulsterman is the son of a prison chaplain, Reverend Graham Stockdale, whose gravitas and life experience have a unique way of readjusting his boy’s perspective. Hannah, Stockdale’s wife, has been a beacon of strength too and gave birth to their first child, Phoebe, nearly 18 months ago.

“During that injury Hannah was my shining light,” Stockdale says. “She’s known me since I was 11 years old so she understands me pretty well, and she was pregnant at the time so there were things to look forward to outside of rugby. That being said, there were plenty days I came home after a setback pretty pissed off and needed a couple of hours to myself and she understood that.

“My dad has always been an enormous influence on me, he is probably the best person I know. He always encouraged me to be honest and straightforward and those kinds of attributes, coaches notice.

“He’s always made sure my feet stay firmly on the ground. There have been plenty conversations when he’d tell me about a lad who was inside, really tough upbringing, dealt a bad hand in life, and it makes you much more appreciative of where I am and what I get to do for a living. Having a sore ankle for a year isn’t the worst thing in the world.”

I chose to be positive about it, keep working as hard as I could, and show the coaches I’m not a diva or a negative person.

A few months after the malaise of the autumn, Stockdale was called up again for the Six Nations. He didn’t get a whiff of game time. Ireland stormed to the Slam while he languished on the periphery. Same outcome, different response.

“That is a decision you make: you decide to be pissed off and negative. Going into the Six Nations, I‘d realised it’s out of my control where I am because of the injury. I chose to be positive about it, keep working as hard as I could, and show the coaches I’m not a diva or a negative person. I still didn’t play a single game but I thoroughly enjoyed the campaign, did good things in training, and came out in really good form.”

He won his first cap over two years last summer, and though he fell painstakingly short of the final World Cup posse, emerged with credit and then went again. He has rounded his game while preserving those lethal finishing instincts in Dan McFarland’s evolving Ulster side. With injuries to Hansen and Jimmy O’Brien, the door to an Ireland start is ajar.

Stockdale’s form has been a constant in an oscillating season for his province. Ulster ache to end the 18-year wait for silverware and a palpitation-inducing start at Zebre Parma, followed latterly by maddening losses to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Bath, did not indicate much cause for hope. McFarland has instilled an attacking blueprint on the new Kingspan plastic, deviating from the set-piece dominance which typified his previous six years at the helm.

The ploy bore fruit in wonderous fashion; Racing 92 filleted by a glorious, innovative Ulster attack, a night when the Parisian bohemians wilted beneath the Ravenhill roar. Since then, Ulster have seen off Connacht and become the first team to win at the RDS in over 18 months.

Cooney Ulster Leinster reaction
Ulster whacked Racing 92, beat Connacht and then stunned Leinster in Dublin over their past three matches (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“When we lost three in a row, everyone was going, ‘gee, Ulster are in trouble’,” Stockdale says. “As a squad we were saying we weren’t far away, maybe only 5% off the mark, and if we were able to take our opportunities we’d be laughing. You saw that reaction in the Racing game and we’ve been able to keep on top of that.

“It’s been an interesting season. There was a lot of talk of crisis outside the club, three weeks after that it’s all ‘Ulster are flying’. For us, it’s doing the same as we have every week.”

Stockdale has learned to blank the noise that follows a professional sports team, but there’s so much chatter and such anticipation over the next eight days. Toulouse and their maestros visit Belfast on Saturday, before Ulster travel to London and Harlequins to complete their Champions Cup pool. In this rarified air, teams can savage you before you know what’s happened.

“You have to be in the moment, every single second. We’ve said this week, we should come out of this game feeling mentally fatigued because you’ve been on it for 80 minutes straight. If you do that against Toulouse, you provide opportunities for yourself.

“They are a very dangerous offloading and running threat but you can force turnovers with your defence and what you do with the ball then is important. They signify a huge challenge, but it’s how we negate what they’re good at.”

And what of the green jersey, dangled tantalisingly out of reach for an age?

“It would be a nice cycle to get back in there after the two-year journey I’ve had. But there are a lot of very good players also hoping to play. Faz has got a headache only he can decide. My mindset is just to focus on these two games.”

After all the knocks and all the angst, there can be no doubting Stockdale’s capacity to keep moving forward.

Source link: https://www.rugbypass.com/plus/jacob-stockdale-i-showed-andy-farrell-im-not-a-diva/




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