Trio return but Anscombe still without stars
On-going injury problems coupled with the unavailability of Ireland international players now recovering from the gruelling just-ended RBS 6 Nations Championship means Ulster will be minus a number of big names when they return to action on Friday night against Edinburgh at Murrayfield (7.30pm).
But the good news is that South African Johann Muller, the side's captain, and New Zealand pair Nick Williams and Jared Payne are all fit to resume.
"They've been missing for a while so they'll all get some game time this weekend," coach Mark Anscombe promised.
Payne last saw action on January 11 when he scored against Glasgow in Ulster's 23-6 Heineken Cup win at Ravenhill. Prior to that the New Zealander had been playing on an half-full tank which finally ran dry.
Yesterday he revealed that he had been carrying an injury for two months before finally taking much-needed time out. He was absent for the final Heineken Cup group-stage game against Castres in France, and the PRO12 fixtures with Ospreys, Zebre, Glasgow and Treviso.
Certainly Payne has been missed, as has fellow-Kiwi Williams whose 35 points – seven tries in 15 matches since enlisting last summer – played a big part in Ulster's success up until two months ago. Like Payne, he last played on January 11.
Muller is not a try-scorer, but he is a huge on-field presence and an inspirational captain, the loss of whose leadership has been seriously detrimental to Ulster's well-being. This will be his first match since February 15.
The return of that hugely influential southern hemisphere trio could not be more timely with Ulster having lost two and drawn one of their past four PRO12 games. That is a run which has seen their 11-point lead wiped out by Glasgow Warriors who now head the table by virtue of a better for-against points differential.
But in unveiling his extended squad – the 15 starters and eight replacements will be named at noon tomorrow – Anscombe pointed to the return of key players from injury and highlighted Ulster's results since the start of the season rather than the start of 2013.
"We're starting to get some players back. They're not all 100 (per cent) yet, but we've talked about what we want to achieve. We're still up there at the top of the table and we're still in the running for everything we play in," he said.
"So I don't think it's all gloom. Our season is 18 (wins), four (defeats), one (draw) as opposed to 23 games at this stage last year when it was 14 (wins), nine (defeats), so we're in a better state. This time last year we were chasing to make the Rabo play-offs, so we're better placed now than we were back then."
The availability of Ireland half-backs Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson is another significant boost, especially in the absence of Ruan Pienaar.
Expressing his pleasure at having seen Marshall make his debut at senior international level last weekend when the Ulster scrum-half got on with just 13 seconds of the scheduled 80 minutes of the Italy game remaining, Anscombe smiled: "Another one capped."