All five of Ulster’s current Irish international players are expected to play some part in Friday night’s RaboDirect Pro12 match against Edinburgh at Murrayfield.
Hooker Rory Best, loose-head prop Tom Court, blindside flanker Stephen Ferris, wing Andrew Trimble and centre Paddy Wallace are all included in coach Brian McLaughlin’s 35-man squad , which will be trimmed to 23 at lunchtime tomorrow.
Wallace’s recovery following November surgery to rectify tendon damage to a thumb enabled him to attend last week’s Irish training camp where he joined Best, Court, Ferris and Trimble.
The centre also took part in yesterday morning’s Ulster training session at Jordanstown and, provided there is no reaction to that work-out, is almost certain to be involved in Friday night’s game in the Scottish capital.
McLaughlin said: “He has trained with us today and he did a little bit with Ireland over the weekend so we’re hopeful that if he comes through tomorrow we will be looking for him to be involved in some kind of action at the weekend.”
There is good news, too, on promising young fly-half Paddy Jackson who has recovered from injury and is squad.
On the down side, two of Ulster’s emerging talents have been ruled out after suffering injuries in Friday night’s 33-17 Pro12 inter-pro victory over Munster at Ravenhill.
Prop Paddy McAllister and full-back Peter Nelson are the players in question.
“Paddy has had a scan on his knee. He has a little bit of medial ligament damage and how bad that is will depend very much on the medics over the next couple of days,” McLaughlin said.
“He’s certainly not available for this weekend but hopefully he’ll come back into the reckoning next week, just depending on how the knee responds to treatment.”
The coach then revealed that another of his injured props, Declan Fitzpatrick, was very close to making a return to action in last week’s game against Munster but had then suffered a setback.
“He was very close last week but then we were doing a little bit of training at Jordanstown and he took another bang on the neck and got a jolt again.
“He’s having another MRI this week. We’re obviously a little bit concerned but he’s being assessed by the specialist tomorrow (Wednesday) and hopefully we’ll get good news,” he said.
The coach’s explanation of Nelson’s problem was: “Peter took a little bit of a crack on the knee at the tail-end of the (Munster) game. He’s not training this week but again, hopefully, we’ll have him back in next week. We’ll just have to wait and see how he responds to treatment.”
Back row forward Mike McComish is also out of contention having suffered what has been diagnosed as an AC joint injury whilst on British & Irish Cup duty for the Ulster Ravens.
The 28-year-old, who joined from Connacht last summer, was hurt playing against Rotherham, another of his former clubs.
“He’s going to get another scan this week so hopefully we’ll know a little bit more after that has been done,” McLaughlin said.
The Ulster coach’s norm in the fixture before a Heineken Cup outing is to field a team as close to full-strength as he can muster.
Injuries permitting, his preference now appears to be deployment of those he hopes to use on the European stage and in naming his provisional panel there is nothing which suggests he might be about to break with that convention.
Meanwhile, McLaughlin gave no credence to suggestions that Edinburgh’s eyes will be on anything other than Friday night’s date with Ulster.
His counterpart Michael Bradley was roundly criticised by many of the Scottish club’s supporters for fielding a seriously weakened side in the second of two festive season back-to-back derbies with Glasgow. Having drawn 23-23 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh’s second string then lost 17-12 at Firhill.
With Edinburgh currently heading Pool 2 of the Heineken Cup and in with a chance of making the quarter-finals for the first time since 2004, Bradley admitted to resting key players ahead of two potentially critical games against Racing Metro and London Irish.
McLaughlin — who, of course, did something very similar by selecting a second-choice team to face Leinster at the RDS on Boxing Day — defended the Edinburgh coach.
“I don’t think their eyes are on other things,” he said. “If you look very carefully at what they have done over the past month, they have been exceptionally competitive in Europe, they have been scoring a lot of points and they’re a very, very good rugby side if you allow them time and space to play.
“Last week Michael did something similar to ourselves by making, I think it was, 13 changes to the side which had faced Glasgow at Murrayfield.
“So I think he’s targeting this game to give him the stepping stone into Europe, just as we are.”