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Jacob Stockdale has achieved a good deal in his career already, but he will be looking to tick another box this weekend.

The Ulster wing is in line to make his first appearance against South African opposition in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship when the Vodacom Bulls visit the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday evening.

Injuries have kept him out of previous league encounters with teams from the Rainbow Nation, but now he is fit and firing again.

He’s once more part of the Ireland set-up, having been in the Six Nations squad amid the Grand Slam triumph, and he scored his first competitive try in two years in the 42-20 victory over Cardiff Rugby at the Arms Park in the last round of the Vodacom URC.

Now he’s ready to take on the Vodacom Bulls of Pretoria in a game that is crucial to third-placed Ulster’s hopes of securing the all-important top-two finish that would ensure home advantage through to the semi-final stage of the play-offs.

“I still haven’t played a South African team in the competition,” said the 26-year-old from County Armagh.

“I’ve missed all the games so far, between injury and not being available. I am hoping to try and finally tick that box against the Bulls.

“Having the South African sides on board has added a new bit of spice to the league. I think they bring a really good variety, something a bit different and a bit fresh. Having a new brand of rugby within the competition is only a good thing.”

Reflecting on the challenge the sixth-placed Vodacom Bulls will pose, he said: “I would imagine it will be very much like playing an international team. They are going to be very physical and they have very dangerous back three players and centres.

“With all four South African teams, if you give them a bit of space and a bit of time on the ball, they are going to punish you.

“We are getting into the business end of the season now and there are some big games ahead, starting with this weekend. We’re chasing the DHL Stormers now and trying to get that home semi-final, so every point is massive.”

Stockdale’s rugby journey has been something of a rollercoaster ride so far. He made a flying start to his Ireland career, setting a new Six Nations try-scoring record in 2018, touching down seven times to be named Player of the Championship.

He remained a regular fixture in the side over the next couple of years, taking his cap tally to 35 and his try total to 19. But, in the autumn of 2021, he suffered a serious ankle injury that was to put him out of action for some 12 months.

“That was the toughest year I have had as a player. It was incredibly frustrating because it was a pretty unusual injury and not many people have re-habbed it or experienced it,” he said.

“Then I came back for a couple of games and injured my other ankle, so I would say 2022 as a whole was a pretty frustrating year for me.

“Outside of rugby though it was brilliant. I got married and had a baby. My daughter is eight months old now. My life has changed incredibly with becoming a dad, a lot more than I expected it to.”

Now life on the pitch is good as well, as demonstrated by his trademark chip and chase effort against Cardiff earlier this month.

“It had been nearly two years since I last scored a competitive try for Ulster, so it was good to get that off my back,” he said.

“I just felt like it was coming and coming, but I never quite got it. So that was a great feeling. It was a pretty nice way to score it as well. I finally feel like I’m now really fit and getting the performances.”

Stockdale wasn’t involved in any of Ireland’s Six Nations matches on the way to the Slam, with his last cap having come against Japan back in July 2021, but he remains pretty philosophical about the situation.

“The lads have been flying, performing really, really well. I suppose it’s not necessarily a bad thing that you can’t get into the number one team in the world!” he said.

“It’s an exciting place to be in that squad. I am very appreciative to Andy Farrell for giving me the opportunity to be there and trusting in me.

“I just want to show what I can do in an Ulster jersey over the next couple of months to try and get back into that green jersey come the World Cup.

“I am a lot tougher now than I was a couple of years ago and I think that’s only going to benefit me moving forward. I am feeling good and excited for what the next couple of years hold. There’s lots for me to aim for.”

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