With the Ospreys coming on Saturday, Ulster could have really done without having injury issues with two key players in the fallout from last weekend’s defeat to Leinster at a rain sodden Kingspan Stadium.
But this is the hand they have been dealt, Jacob Stockdale’s ankle and the concussion which removed Rob Herring making both doubtful for the game with the Welsh region as Ulster bid to avoid a second defeat of the season.
Stockdale failed to return after the half-time interval in the 20-13 loss to Leinster due to an ankle problem. It looks as if the 26-year-old may be missing for a while, but it has turned out that the issue is not with his left ankle, the one that kept him sidelined for a year and required surgery.
Stockdale, who has been in great form since the start of the season, has undergone a scan to his right ankle and Ulster are hopeful that he will not be out for too long.
“He was pretty gutted post-match,” said Ulster assistant coach Dan Soper.
“It’s a shame because he’s got back to some pretty good form pretty quickly after going through the whole process of rehabbing.
“Hopefully it’s not too bad and we can get him back out there,” he added.
Though it is unknown if Stockdale’s issue has now scuppered any chances he had of a possible recall to Andy Farrell’s squad for the autumn Tests, Soper remained optimistic that the back three player will not be out of action for a sustained period.
“Jacob is pretty resilient, and we’ll wait and see what the scan tells us and then we’ll have a timeline to work to.
“Hopefully it’s not too long and all the good work he’s done in the last year, getting himself into the shape that he’s in, we’ll see that again pretty quickly.”
Herring was withdrawn after suffering a concussion early in the Leinster game and is currently undergoing the graduated return to play protocols.
The situation with Emerging Ireland means that Dan McFarland will not be able to involve Ethan McIlroy or indeed Robert Baloucoune for a while and, assuming Stockdale is out, the head coach will need to either stick with Aaron Sexton or bring in Ben Moxham, Craig Gilroy, or Rob Lyttle. At hooker, Tom Stewart is also in South Africa meaning that if Herring is unable to play against the Ospreys, John Andrew will likely start with ex-Munster squad member Declan Moore providing cover.
On a more upbeat note, Springbok World Cup winner Duane Vermeulen has returned to Belfast after being involved in the Rugby Championship and could be drafted in for this weekend.
“It’s great to have him back,” said Soper.
“He’s going to get into training and we’ll establish what part he’ll play for the weekend.”
In terms of processing the loss to Leinster – Ulster battled back to claim a losing bonus point after trailing 20-3 – Soper maintained that the northern province will still have absorbed some very useful lessons going forward.
“It was a bit odd to have as big a game as that, that early in the year and when both teams were pretty loaded.
“But it’s been really good for us to give us that measure of things that we need to get better at.
“We know we can get close to Leinster, and we’re not far away, but we’ve got to keep getting better if we’re going to beat them when we play again,” he added referring to their meeting in early December at the RDS.
As for this weekend, Soper added: “Leinster got on top of us in a couple of areas and we know that Ospreys will have a crack at us in a few of those areas.
“It’s actually good [for us] to now have this challenge with a big set-piece team like the Ospreys.”