Stockdale and Herring hit milestones as Ulster eye URC semi-final spot

Jacob Stockdale will win his 100th Ulster cap against Connacht in Friday night's URC quarter-final at the Kingspan Stadium
Jacob Stockdale will win his 100th Ulster cap against Connacht in Friday night's URC quarter-final at the Kingspan Stadium

BKT United Rugby Championship quarter-final Ulster v Connacht (tonight, 7.35pm, live on Viaplay Sports 1 & TG4)

JACOB Stockdale will win his 100th Ulster cap while Rob Herring will equal the province’s appearance record when Ulster take on Connacht this evening in the first of this season’s URC quarter-finals.

While Stockdale becomes Ulster’s latest centurion, Herring is set to join legends Andrew Trimble and Darren Cave on 229 appearances.

Herring joined Ulster in 2012 from the Western Province as back-up to Rory Best. After difficult beginnings to life in Belfast, the Cape Town native’s game grew as the seasons progressed and after establishing himself as Ulster’s number one hooker after Best’s retirement, Herring has also gone on to win 34 international caps for his adopted nation.

Herring will also be hoping he doesn’t have to wait too long before claiming outright ownership of that appearance record as the winners of tonight’s quarter-final are back in action next weekend.

And if it’s a home win well then Dan McFarland’s side will be back at the Kingspan for their semi-final.

But first there’s Connacht and while Ulster have the carrot of a potential home semi-final dangling before their eyes, the Westerners will be hoping to delay departing head coach Andy Friend’s leaving party for at least one more week.

Friend is returning home to Australia after a successful stint out west. It’s a stint that included a first Connacht win in Belfast in 58 years in October 2018.

At the turn of the year, a play-off spot was looking almost out of reach for Connacht, but a sterner defence in the second half of the season helped to achieve an excellent seventh-place finish in the URC table.

Winning six of their last seven matches, Connacht soared up the league and they’ll arrive in Belfast a very different team to the one that shipped a 36-10 defeat on the opening night of the season last September.

If they are to leave Belfast with a rare win, they will look for big performances from out-half Jack Carty as well as Irish internationals Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen.

Connacht do like to play a fast brand of rugby and if the game does become loose, Hansen and full-back Tiernan O’Halloran will more than take advantage of any chances that may come their way.

But Ulster aren’t without their share of match winners either.

Joining Stockdale in the back three is Michael Lowry and Robert Baloucoune while there is a return for Stuart McCloskey at centre.

Rory Sutherland, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, who join Herring in the front row and Duane Vermeulen all start in what could be their final run-outs at the Kingspan after Ulster yesterday confirmed their departures at the end of the season, along with Sam Carter who is included on the bench.

With a near sell-out crowd, two teams on top of their game and a dry ball to throw around, this has all the hallmarks of a classic interprovincial clash.

But, with home advantage behind them, it’s one that Ulster should just about come out on the right side of to set up a home semi-final.