Stockdale a major doubt as Ulster remain hopeful Best will face Connacht
Ireland and Ulster captain bidding to make final home appearance for the province
Rory Best: has returned to training for Ulster for the quarter-final clash against Connacht. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
While Ulster remain hopeful that Rory Best will make what will be an emotional last appearance at the Kingspan Stadium, in Saturday’s PRO14 quarter-final with Connacht, it seems unlikely that Jacob Stockdale will be involved.
The 23-year-old shipped a hamstring injury nearly three weeks ago in the win over Edinburgh – which secured Saturday’s home knockout game – and is a major doubt for this weekend as he has been unable to train this week.
Stockdale’s apparent absence will be a blow to Ulster who have already lost both home and away to Connacht this season, in the PRO14, with the westerners’ Belfast victory, back in October, being their first north of the Border since 1960.
Best limped off with an ankle issue early on in the narrow Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Leinster at the end of March and has not been involved since.
Since hobbling away from the Aviva Stadium, the Ulster and Ireland captain has announced his retirement from the professional game, following this autumn’s World Cup, promptly ending speculation that the 36-year-old might continue on at the northern province for another season after his final bow on the international stage.
Ulster coach Dan McFarland said Best is in training for the shoot-out with Connacht: “There is positive progress at the moment. It’s looking reasonably positive. Jacob’s not training at the moment so it’s unlikely that he will be involved.”
The only other apparent issue regarding selection is flanker Sean Reidy who is undergoing return to play protocols after suffering a concussion in last Saturday’s dead rubber home win over Leinster.
The winner of this Saturday’s Irish derby will then travel to Glasgow – who ended up topping Conference A – for the May 17th semi-final. It means McFarland will now have to overcome his previous two clubs – he played and coached at Connacht and also coached Glasgow (2015-17 before then joining the Scotland set-up – to make it all the way to Celtic Park for the final at the end of the month.
To have made knockout rugby in both Europe and the league, in not only his first season in charge at Ulster but his initial taste of being a head coach, is quite an achievement for McFarland after arriving at the Kingspan following the wreckage of last season.
“A lot of it is down to the resolve of the squad of players,” he unsurprisingly insisted. “There were hard times last year, they stuck together as a unit, they learned from that and they came through.
“For me, coming in, it was a question of harnessing that and pointing them in the right direction.”
This will be Ulster’s first home quarter-final, in any competition, since exiting to Saracens in Europe on a seismic day back in 2014, but, for McFarland, this is just about the here and now and simply winning to survive.
“You win and you advance, you lose and that’s it,” said the Ulster head coach. “Everything is on the line. From a personal point of view I definitely want to beat them [Connacht],” added McFarland of Andy Friend’s hugely improved side.
“It was pretty painful last time [Ulster lost at the Sportsground just after Christmas] and it was painful when we lost here too. But let’s not get away from it, we don’t have a right to win against a team that’s beaten us twice this year fair and square.
“It will be a difficult task to beat them, as difficult a task as we’ve had all year.”