With the business-end of the season now well and truly upon us, Ulster should get a timely boost from having their trio of frontline Ireland internationals available for this Friday's PRO12 League clash with Aironi at Ravenhill (kick-off 7.05pm).
Rory Best, Andrew Trimble and the awesomely in-form Stephen Ferris have all returned to Ulster training today following a week of rest at the end of an arduous Six Nations programme and it is hoped that all three will feature on Friday night.
Their return could hardly have come at a better time as Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin will want the trio back to spearhead the final push towards making the League play-offs — a bid which so nearly came unstuck in the dramatic last-minute 27-23 win at Treviso on Saturday — while he will also be eager to have them return ahead of the massive Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Munster on Easter Sunday.
Best, who is believed to be over his rib problem, Ferris and Trimble have not worn an Ulster jersey since January's frustratingly narrow European defeat at Clermont and all three will also be keen to now focus on the remainder of the League season — with Ulster really having to deliver a bonus point win against Aironi — as well as preparing to give their all for that tilt at Munster in Limerick.
All three players will doubtless be thankful that Ulster still have a chance of making the League’s top four as that goal came perilously close to implosion last weekend when only a last-gasp try from substitute Ian Whitten saw the visitors shade the result in the end.
Meanwhile, on the injury front, skipper Johann Muller and Darren Cave picked up knocks from the Italian trip which saw Ulster score three tries — the other scorers being Chris Henry and Paddy Wallace — to remain the League’s top try-scoring side on 43 touchdowns. Muller was forced off in the nerve-shredding win at Treviso with a dead leg while Cave also left the action — both departed in the second half — with a bang to the nose.
Both Muller and Cave had just returned from injury to make last week's starting line-up and it is thought that they will be fine for Friday night when Ulster face Aironi for the fourth time this season after also being drawn with them in the Heineken Cup pool stages.
Elsewhere, the squad which travelled to Treviso came through largely unscathed with Tom Court coming through 60 minutes of work at the Stadio Monigo.
As for the departing Pedrie Wannenburg, he missed out on selection for Treviso due to illness and the hope is that he will also be able to claim his place for Friday night’s League game in a starting back row which should include Ferris and Henry.
Elsewhere, prop Declan Fitzpatrick’s neck has been given the all-clear and the hope is he will return to playing soon while both Michael McComish (concussion) and Simon Danielli (hamstring) are both out.
The stakes are now getting ever higher as after this weekend fifth-placed Ulster — who are currently level on points with the Scarlets and are just one point off the fourth-placed Glasgow — have only three games remaining to nail down a play-off place.
With inter-provincial clashes against Connacht (away), Leinster (home) and Munster (away) to come in what remains of their regulation League programme the need to deliver maximum points in what is likely to be this season’s penultimate Ravenhill appearance on Friday night could hardly be more pressing.