With the imminent arrival of All Black John Afoa — the World Cup winner was expected to touch down in Belfast today — and loan signing Stefan Terblanche grabbing most of the attention, it took a while for the focus to come back to Ulster’s vital PRO12 League game against Connacht on Saturday evening (kick-off 5.35pm).
The 28-year-old Kiwi prop, unexpectedly released a month early from his post-World Cup commitments, has been included in the Ulster squad as they aim to halt an alarming four-game losing run, which has seen them sink to ninth in the table and find something positive to take into next week’s first outing in Europe.
Afoa is expected to play some part in Saturday’s game and his arrival could hardly be better timed as, in addition to shipping a run of damaging defeats, Ulster have hit a bit of an injury crisis in the front row with Declan Fitzpatrick (ankle) and Jerry Cronin (neck) not in consideration for the clash with Connacht.
As for full back Terblanche, whose three month loan spell at Ravenhill was announced on Monday evening, it is still unclear when the 36-year-old will report for duty as matters regarding his visa are, according to Ulster Rugby, still being sorted out.
As such, the former South Africa international has not been named in Ulster’s 32-man squad which, as expected, includes both Stephen Ferris and Rory Best for the first time this season.
However, it is believed that there could still be some doubt surrounding Best’s involvement though assistant coach Neil Doak — filling in due to Brian McLaughlin’s absence at yesterday’s Heineken Cup launch in Dublin — did not entirely rule the Ireland hooker in, or out, of Ulster’s plans.
“He (Best) trained today and the final make-up of the starting team and the bench will be decided later in the week,” said Doak.
“There are a few bits and pieces pending and we just want to make sure they’re fully cleared up.”
As for Ferris, the flanker looks set to be fully involved at the weekend for his first game for Ulster since succumbing to his well-documented knee injury in January.
With the pressure on Ulster to produce a win against the westerners — who are in eighth in the table and include former Ulster players Niall O’Connor and TJ Anderson — Doak was understandably putting emphasis on the need for a positive performance and outcome to Ulster’s first interprovincial clash of the season.
“We’re not happy with losing four on the bounce,” said Doak.
“Certain areas haven’t gone right for us and other teams have been able to capitalise on these areas.
“It’s cost us dearly and we want to make sure we eradicate those errors and put in a good solid performance.”
Backs: R Pienaar, P Marshall, I Porter, I Humphreys, P Jackson, P Wallace, I Whitten, N Spence, D Cave, A Trimble, C Gilroy, S Danielli, A D’Arcy.
Forwards: T Court, J Afoa, P McAllister, A Macklin, C Black, N Brady, R Best, A Kyriacou, J Muller, T Barker, L Stevenson, D Tuohy, N McComb, C Henry, R Diack, M McComish, P Wannenburg, W Faloon, S Ferris.