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Friday 27 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Laszlo Geczo/INPHO Jacob Stockdale.
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'He looks in the best shape he’s been in, in the four or five years I’ve been here'
Ulster assistant coach Dan Soper is excited to see 35-cap Ireland international Jacob Stockdale return to action after a year out.

ULSTER ASSISTANT COACH Dan Soper believes the province are getting back a physically and mentally stronger Jacob Stockdale than the one that they last saw at the start of the 2021/22 season.

The Ireland international hasn’t played since September 2021 due to an ankle injury, one which initially looked to only rule him out for a couple of weeks but progressed to the degree that it required surgery.

But the 26-year-old, who has been capped 35 times by Ireland, has been confirmed to be available for Ulster’s friendly against the Exeter Chiefs at Kingspan Stadium tomorrow (7pm) and will likely play a half in the fixture.

With time running out for Stockdale to stake a claim for a place in Andy Farrell’s squad for next year’s World Cup, a strong start to the season could turn heads, and Soper is hugely encouraged by what he’s seen.

“When you’re a rugby player, you want to play, and unfortunately for Jacob it’s been 12 months (out). And it’s been tough for him as when he first got injured it was like a couple of weeks and then a few more and then he misses 12 months,” said the assistant coach.

“That’s psychologically hard for someone like Jacob when he’s in the prime of his career and that’s pretty tough for him to take. But he’s had a lot go on in his life outside rugby in those 12 months (Stockdale became a father last month).

“I think he looks in the best shape he’s been in, in the four or five years I’ve been here. Physically he’s in a great place and mentally he also feels really good about getting started and we’re excited to have a player of his quality back.”

Stockdale’s return has coincided with the news that Ireland will be sending an Emerging team to South Africa at the end of this month for three games against Currie Cup opposition in Bloemfontein, South Africa, and it wouldn’t be overly surprising to see him get a call-up so the national coaches can take a look at him.

Regardless of whether the former Wallace High winger travels, Ulster are set to be hit by the tournament that is likely to rob them of several key figures for up to four rounds of URC fixtures, with the likes of Nick Timoney and Mike Lowry potential tourists.

Soper admits the timing is less than ideal – with a possibly pivotal fixture against Leinster on the same day as Emerging Ireland’s first fixture in South Africa against the Griquas – but insists they will not be making any excuses.

“We’ll have to adapt. It is what it is. It’s something out of our control and we’ll adapt our selection to fit who we’ve got here. It’ll be full steam ahead, we’ll go hard. Some guys will get an opportunity to play for Ulster, while others will play for Emerging Ireland. It is what it is,” he says.

“We haven’t dwelled on it too much as it’s out of our control. We can only control what we can. I suppose it’s a double-edged sword, but you like to see your players get those opportunities.

Would we have picked a different time? Yes, possibly, but we’ll just adapt and get on with things. We’re used to international players being unavailable at different times of the year and it’s the same for all the provinces, we’re going to be in the same boat. We’re going to get on with it.

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gavin-coombes-craig-casey-ryan-baird-joe-mccarthy-and-tom-otoole-after-the-game Billy Stickland / INPHO 'Emerging Ireland' will head to South Africa next month. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Ulster will certainly lack no motivation to finally end their silverware drought this season, the pain of their heartbreaking last-gasp URC semi-final defeat to the DHL Stormers still lingering around Kingspan Stadium now.

Warrick Gelant’s try and Manie Libbok’s conversion deep into added time in Cape Town denied the province not just a place in the final, but a chance to host it at Kingspan Stadium, and it will be a deep scar on a team that is still developing into annual challengers.

How they respond to that wound could go one of two ways but, for his part, Soper maintains they are doing all they can to leave the season just gone in the rearview mirror.

“I’ve heard people say in the past you don’t want to go into the summer with rocks under your towel on the beach, and I always sort of wondered what they meant, but I think after the way last season finished I have an idea,” he grimaced.

The way last season finished was bitterly disappointing and it took some time to park that and put it to bed. That only happens once you get back in here and you get back into that routine of training and that cycle of last season is gone and you have things to look forward to.

“Last season is done. We’ve taken our learnings from it and we’ll move on. We definitely have to learn from it in terms of how we played, what we did well and what we didn’t do so well using our most recent season and our most recent games, which is guiding us to what we need to get better at and what we’re improving for this season.”

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