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Ryan Byrne/INPHO Ulster's Jacob Stockdale.
# pro14
Stockdale to make Ulster return in tonight's clash against Ospreys
Andy Farrell will be watching the Pro14 game in Belfast with interest tonight.

ANDY FARRELL FLEW out to Rome yesterday with his Ireland squad, but chances are he will have at least one eye on proceedings in Belfast tonight.

Jacob Stockdale making his return for Ulster is one of the key storylines of what should otherwise be a straightforward night against the Ospreys at Kingspan Stadium for the province (8pm kick-off), and the Ireland coach will be keen to see if there are any unwanted side-effects of the winger’s recent lay-off with a knee injury.

Having shipped the knock in the interpro win over Munster in the first game of the new year, the 24-year-old’s absence has been notable in the first two rounds of the Six Nations. While Hugo Keenan has deputised superbly at full-back – and will likely stay there even when Stockdale returns – the Ulster man would have added another dimension on his more familiar wing.

His defence has been questioned, but then so has that of James Lowe in recent weeks, and a strong offensive performance would perhaps sway Farrell’s thinking for the Scotland tie in two weeks’ time, particularly given his abrasive, powerful style compliments the evasive running of Lowe or Jordan Larmour on the other side.

The returns of Robert Baloucoune and Sean Reidy are also talking points for tonight’s game, particularly in the case of the former, who was one of three development players called up by Farrell at the start of the 2020 Six Nations but then saw his growth halted when he suffered an hamstring injury during lockdown.

Indeed, all the returns of Stockdale and Baloucoune serve to do is provide a reminder of the depth that Ulster have in their back three, so much so that the likes of Matt Faddes and Baloucoune play supporting roles to Stockdale, Michael Lowry and Rob Lyttle, while Ethan McIlroy and Craig Gilroy aren’t even involved.

Another missing is Marcell Coetzee, who sits out after suffering a thigh contusion in the 19-13 win against Glasgow Warriors last week, likely with him being available for next week’s game against Leinster in mind. While his absence will be felt, the balance between the trio of Greg Jones, Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney – who form Ulster’s back row tonight – was impressive.

As for the game itself, given the context in which they find themselves – and as much as Ulster’s coaching staff and players may argue to the contrary – wins alone won’t do it for them any more.

With Leinster now five points clear at the top of Conference A of the Guinness Pro14 with just four games left, and showing no signs of slowing up, Dan McFarland’s side will know the best chance they have of reaching consecutive finals will be down the bonus point route.

In that regard, next week’s game against Leinster themselves at Kingspan Stadium will draw considerably more interest than this week’s tie against an Ospreys side who, despite winning their last four games away from home, should not pose enough of a threat to make this much of a contest.

Rhys Webb is still a constant thorn in the side at scrum-half despite missing out on international consideration, Luke Morgan is a savvy operator on the wing and Sam Parry is an experienced head at hooker, but this is a Welsh team shorn short of most of their game changers, including the injured Mat Protheroe.

So, in that regard, anything less than a fifth bonus-point win from six home PRO14 games this season will be a disappointment and, as a result, you can expect McFarland’s side to continue their trend of turning down shots at goal and playing aggressively for tries.

Along with Stockdale, Stuart McCloskey is released from Ireland duty to start at inside centre and, on paper, Ulster have more than enough firepower to get the job done, particularly with the likes of Baloucoune, Eric O’Sullivan and exciting Academy prospect and former Ireland Sevens international Cormac Izuchukwu to call on from the bench.

Four tries and five points is a must. As long as Ulster keep their heads, next week we could be preparing for essentially a winner-takes-all contest against Leinster in Belfast.

Ulster

15. Michael Lowry
14. Rob Lyttle
13. James Hume
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Ian Madigan
9. John Cooney
1. Andrew Warwick
2. John Andrew
3. Marty Moore
4. Alan O’Connor
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Greg Jones
7. Jordi Murphy (captain)
8. Nick Timoney

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Substitutes
16. Adam McBurney
17. Eric O’Sullivan
18. Ross Kane
19. Cormac Izuchukwu
20. Sean Reidy
21. Alby Mathewson
22. Matt Faddes
23. Robert Baloucoune

Ospreys

15. Dan Evans
14. Keelan Giles
13. Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler
12. Keiran Williams
11. Luke Morgan
10. Stephen Myler
9. Rhys Webb (captain)
1. Gareth Thomas
2. Sam Parry
3. Tom Botha
4. Lloyd Ashley
5. Rhys Davies
6. Will Griffiths
7. Olly Cracknell
8. Morgan Morris

Substitutes
16. Ifan Phillips
17. Nicky Smith
18. Ma’afu Fia
19. Gareth Evans
20. Sam Cross
21. Shaun Venter
22. Joe Hawkins
23. Luke Price

Referee: Sean Gallagher (IRFU)

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