Ulster Rugby's first-choice front five reunited as Rory Best and Johann Muller make quick return
Coach Mark Anscombe must have thought long and hard before deciding to include captain Johann Muller and Rory Best in his starting line-up for tonight's Heineken Cup Pool 5 clash against Montpellier at Ravenhill (8pm).
And the decision to start Nick Williams ahead of Roger Wilson at No 8 will have been another which caused the Ulster coach deep contemplation before making his call.
Those are three huge decisions and opting to go with Best and Muller, who return after a broken arm and a troublesome calf problem respectively, represents a gamble ahead of the expected winner-takes-all meeting with Leicester Tigers next Saturday at Welford Road. Let's just hope they have not been brought back too soon and neither suffers any setback as a result.
Naming Williams ahead of Wilson, who has been in great form during the calf injury absence of the burly antipodean, cannot have been easy, either. One wonders if, in view of the lengthy, unyielding stint Wilson has had to put in given Williams' unavailability, the decision was made in the interests of not burning out the former?
Alternatively, it may just have been a tactical preference; their styles are very different with Wilson the more astute and Wilson's strength being his strength and power, paricularly in situations close to the opposition line.
Best's return after breaking his right forearm in Ireland's two-point defeat by the All Blacks on November 24 sees the famously quick-to-heal hooker recalled ahead of schedule. Having missed Ulster's back-to-back Heineken Cup bonus-point wins over Benetton Treviso, Best – who signed a two-year contract extension during that time out – has had to watch his understudy Rob Herring make figurative hay while the metaphoric sun shone for him.
Not only has Herring excelled in that period, so has his deputy Niall Annett, leaving Ulster in the healthy position of having three first-rate hookers.
Best lauded the quality of the care he received in ensuring he got back sooner than had been feared and anticipated.
"I knew that it was going to be a tight ask to get back for these games, but it is testament to the medical team that we have here –Michael Eames the surgeon and the strength and conditioning coaches at Ulster – that I am back," Best said.
"I have been fortunate there have been no setbacks along the way. It has just been a case of trying to push on and thankfully I have come through."
Muller's restoration sees him rejoin Dan Tuohy in the second row, with 22-year-old Iain Henderson – outstanding a week ago against Munster – dropping to the bench. In other words, each of the front five forwards widely acknowledged as being Ulster's first-choice players is starting – Tom Court, Best, John Afoa, Muller and Tuohy.
The inclusion of the big South African also means stand-in captain Robbie Diack is relieved of that responsibility. Other than that, everything is the same as was the case a week ago in that hard-fought inter-pro.
In contrast – and as France-based former Ulster player and coach Jeremy Davidson revealed in yesterday's Belfsat Telegraph – Montpellier coach Fabein Galthie has made wholesale changes to the side which lost 25-8 to Ulster in October.
Of the 15 who started against Ulster at Stade Yves du Manoir, the only survivors are full-back Anthony Floch, outside-centre Anthony Tuitavake and tight-head Maximilliano Bustos.
The one stand-out name for Ulster supporters is that of Johnnie Beattie, who has played for Scotland on 26 occasions. He is named at No 8 – in direct opposition to Williams.