Having lost five of their past six RaboDirect Pro 12 fixtures, Ulster look like being somewhat closer to full strength for Friday night’s crucial home date with Scarlets (7.05pm).
Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Craig Gilroy — all of whom were rested for last weekend’s Firhill meeting with Glasgow — have been named in the 33-strong provisional squad.
So too has New Zealander John Afoa who is back in the province following a round-the-world trip to his homeland where he served as best man at fellow-All Black Jerome Kaino’s wedding.
But South Africa’s Ruan Pienaar has not made the squad, with Ulster deciding not to risk the scrum-half after he complained of pain in his injured hamstring.
“He trained today (Tuesday), but the medics are still a little bit concerned about him so we didn’t want to put him in the squad and then have to withdraw him,” coach Brian McLaughlin said.
“We’re just working with him to see how he progresses this week. He was a little bit sore at the weekend so we took it back a little bit. He was back training today; he did a little bit of passing and he ran with the team.
“If he has no reaction we’ll try to push him on a little bit. But we don’t want to risk him at the weekend if there’s a doubt.”
Meanwhile Pienaar’s fellow-Springbok, Stefan Terblanche, still has not arrived due to red tape relating to his visa.
“We’re hoping he’ll be here this week, but we’ve been saying that for the past few weeks,” McLaughlin said.
“As far as we know his final visa bits and bobs were completed on Monday and we’re very hopeful that the final bits and pieces will come through and he’ll be on a flight as soon as possible,” he added.
Terblanche’s close friend, Johann Muller, explained the situation he encountered with regard to his visa when he enlisted from Sharks 18 months ago.
“Mine took about three days when I’d completed everything,” the Ulster skipper said.
“With us going into Europe the following week we’d like to have him available for that. It all depends when he gets here whether we consider him or not,” McLaughlin added, suggesting that Terblanche may yet play some part on Friday night.
At this stage, however, Adam D’Arcy is set to continue at full-back.
And with Gilroy likely to start on the left wing, Simon Danielli looks like being the man to miss out as a result.
Whilst clearly keen to avoid using the words “must win” with regard to Friday’s meeting with Scarlets, nevertheless McLaughlin accepted that it is a hugely important fixture.
“Obviously the more games we lose the less chance there is of a top four finish,” he said. “At the minute that’s still right up there as one of our goals.
“If you look at the next three games that we have (Scarlets followed by Aironi home and away in the Heineken Cup) before we have Leinster (Boxing Day at the RDS) they really are crucial to the rest of our season.
“If we want to fulfil our ambition to get to the top four again then we’ve got to beat the Scarlets on Friday night. And if we want to push forward in Europe then the two Aironi games are crucial for us as well,” McLaughlin added.
Meanwhile the first round draw for the 2nd XV Schools’ Cup has been made. It is:
Strabane Academy v Grosvenor GS, Campbell College v Rainey Endowed, Lurgan College v Dalriada, Limavady GS v Wallace HS, Methodist College v Down HS, Foyle and Londonderry College v Portora RS, RS Dungannon v Bangor GS, Carrickfergus GS v Friends, Dromore HS v Omagh Academy, Banbridge Academy v Regent House, Portadown College v RS Armagh, Larne GS v Ballymena Academy, Coleraine AI v Sullivan Upper, Ballyclare HS v Belfast HS, RBAI v Cambridge House, Antrim GS v BRA. Matches to be played on or before Wednesday, January 18.