Jacob Stockdale should be fit for Ulster’s clash with Racing
Management confident winger has recovered from hamstring injury for Champions Cup clash
Jacob Stockdale: the 21-year-old has scored in every European round so far for Ulster. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
The 21-year-old, who has scored in every European round so far, is looking good to make Saturday’s crunch game after not featuring for Ulster since mid-December’s back-to-back win over the Scarlets when he vacated the Kingspan pitch after just under an hour.
With a hamstring issue keeping the Ireland winger entirely side-lined over the festive interprovincials, assistant coach Dwayne Peel revealed that Stockdale should be part of a fully loaded Ulster side who sit second in Pool Four and can still potentially top the group as they are five behind unbeaten leaders Racing.
“He has been training well so, barring any mishaps, he will be fine,” said Peel of Ulster’s star player. “He is looking good and hopefully will be okay.”
With the forgettable RDS outing put firmly behind them, along with the earlier defeat at Connacht, head coach Dan McFarland – whose squad have now slipped from second to fifth in the Pro14 – will be making wholesale change for Saturday as Ulster bid to prevent Racing from going five from five in Europe which would, in turn, see the Paris club easily clinch the pool with a round to spare.
This would leave Ulster scrapping to secure a possible best runner-up spot from their trip to Leicester Tigers in order to make the last eight for the first time in five years.
So, taking Racing’s scalp – Ulster were swatted aside 44-12 in Paris in October’s round two, their only European defeat up to now – is therefore a must for Rory Best and his team-mates.
Ulster also ought to be deploying Marcell Coetzee, who was following return to play protocols last week ahead of the Leinster defeat, while Jordi Murphy, Marty Moore, Eric O’Sullivan, John Cooney, Billy Burns, Will Addison and Stuart McCloskey are all expected to feature this weekend.
Academy winger Robert Baloucoune, having served his two-week ban for a dangerous tackle on Darren Sweetnam in December’s win over Munster, looks set for a European debut after being added to Ulster’s European squad.
The 21-year-old Enniskillen native comes in for Henry Speight, who is now back in Australia after his short-term deal with Ulster ended after Christmas, and Baloucoune looks bound to feature as Craig Gilroy remains on the injured list.
Meanwhile, promising utility back Michael Lowry is a doubt after he sustained a concussion at the RDS while winger Angus Kernohan – who is not part of the European squad – is out until the middle of next month with a hamstring issue.
An area of much more pressing concern for McFarland is at loosehead prop. With Kyle McCall now seeing a specialist following a serious hamstring injury he suffered last weekend, Ulster now just have two fit specialist looseheads in O’Sullivan and Andy Warwick, having already lost Tommy O’Hagan to injury and let both Rodney Ah You and Schalk van der Merwe leave the Kingspan.
Whenever you start this competition, you want to be coming into the last two games with everything to play for
Peel remained non-committal over Ulster’s plan to rectify their prop shortfall and where things currently stand regarding medical cover for the rest of the season.
Instead, he focused on the game in hand against the powerful French club who are favourites to top the pool.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good position to get through,” said Peel, who is responsible for Ulster’s attacking plays. “Whenever you start this competition, you want to be coming into the last two games with everything to play for.
“We’ve put ourselves in that situation so, for us, it’s an opportunity that we want to take.”
Ulster looked to be on the cusp of qualifying for the last eight a year ago, only to be turned over in the final group game at Wasps which brought no knockout European rugby and ended Les Kiss’s tenure.
“It’s up to us to get stuck in,” Peel added in what is sure to be a hugely physical encounter and an occasion where Ulster will sorely miss Iain Henderson’s presence. “We have to be clinical, that’s the bottom line.”