Irish stars back to pitch in for Ulster
Having just emerged unscathed from two bruising RaboDirect PRO12 battles in Italy, Ulster’s preparations for an even more taxing run have begun.
With the autumn internationals now out of the way, coach Mark Anscombe’s priority is to establish the condition in which those involved in the Ireland camp have returned and to decide on how best — and when — to use them.
Availability will not mean an instant recall, so although they are available, Craig Gilroy, Chris Henry and Tommy Bowe are likely to be omitted this weekend.
But those Irish squad members who have had limited game-time in the past month — Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Darren Cave, Dan Tuohy and Iain Henderson — are expected to figure.
Like Gilroy — who then went on to get a cap-proper against Argentina — all of those players started in the Irish XV which destroyed Fiji. In addition, Henderson was given runs of nine and eight minutes against the Springboks and the Pumas respectively.
With Stephen Ferris having picked up an ankle injury against Edinburgh — ironically in a match which was to have proven his fitness to Ireland coach Declan Kidney — Henderson has become hugely important to Ulster.
Ferris will definitely not play this weekend, but Ulster hope to have him available for the second of the two back-to-back Heineken Cup dates with Northampton Saints (December 15).
That is also the match being targeted for injured lock Lewis Stevenson’s return.
The news on fellow-lock Johann Muller is better, however. When the Ulster captain underwent surgery to ligament damage around his left thumb — sustained in the Heineken Cup win against Glasgow at Scotstoun on October 19 — it was feared he might be out for up to eight weeks.
But a fortnight ago the big South African insisted he would be ready for this weekend’s clash with the Scarlets, meaning vital game-time ahead of the next Heineken Cup date. So although he is not quite 100per cent at this stage, the likelihood is that Muller will play in Llanelli on Sunday afternoon (4pm).
Ulster are also hoping that the big Springbok will remain with the province for another season at least.
His contract is up in June and while he had planned to return home to Mossel Bay in the Southern Cape to work on the family farm, a one-year extension is believed to be imminent.
Rory Best, who missed Ireland's Guinness Series after spraining neck ligaments, is progressing and following a scan yesterday the word from within the Ulster camp was that while he is unlikely to play this weekend, he should be fit for the Franklin’s Gardens date with Northampton on December 7.
The outcome of the five fixtures between now and the end of the 2012 will go some way towards determining the success or failure of Ulster’s season. They could not be more challenging, for given the importance of the match and the quality of the opposition, each promises to fully test Anscombe’s side’s mental and physical strength.
In what is a crucial first versus second game in the PRO12, Ulster face Scarlets in Llanelli, where their record — at Stradey Park and, more recently, Parc y Scarlets — is wretched. One win (2011) and a draw (2006) in the past eight visits.
Five days later — in what will be Ulster’s fourth successive away game — Northampton provide the challenge.
That, too, is a first versus second encounter, with Ulster currently heading Pool 4, followed by the Aviva Premiership outfit.
France’s Jerome Garces was named yesterday as the referee for that game.
The following weekend the same sides square up at Ravenhill and that will be followed by another Belfast date with Leinster on December 21.
That seasonal set-to will be the rival provinces’ first meeting since May 19 when Joe Schmidt’s boys put their northern neighbours to the sword in the battle for the European crown. With the scars of their 42-14 whipping at Twickenham still itching, Ulster will see that as an ideal opportunity to underline the extent of the undoubted improvement they have made in the past six months.
The final match of 2012 is a trip to Munster, who will seek to exorcise the ghost of the defeat they suffered on Easter Sunday when Ulster became the only team to have beat them in seven Heineken Cup quarter-finals at Thomond Park.