Ulster's Ireland second row forward Dan Tuohy has been named in the 26-strong preliminary squad for tomorrow night’s top two RaboDirect PRO12 clash with Scarlets at Ravenhill (7.05pm).
Having suffered a torn calf muscle in the 10-9 Heineken Cup defeat by Northampton three weeks ago, it was feared that Tuohy would be out for a month. But he responded well to treatment and, as a result, was able to return to training earlier than expected.
His availability alongside fit-again Lewis Stevenson, ever-present Neil McComb and highly-versatile Iain Henderson — equally at home at lock or in the back row — means that captain Johann Muller now is Ulster’s sole engine-room absentee.
Also back are Ireland hooker Rory Best, wing Andrew Trimble and Henderson, all of whom missed out on last weekend’s Limerick date with Munster. And South African superstar Ruan Pienaar is available again following his richly-deserved day off from duty at Thomond Park, along with World Cup-winning former All Black tighthead John Afoa.
Despite Best’s return, Rob Herring and development hooker Niall Annett are included in the 26, which will be trimmed to 23 at lunch-time today.
Annett impressed when he was introduced from the bench against Munster and his retention provides further proof of coach Mark Anscombe’s promise that those who make the most of opportunities which come their way will be rewarded.
Despite being back in training, Ireland tighthead Declan Fitzpatrick was not thought ready to resume following his head injury. He last donned an Ulster shirt on November 23 when he did a halfshift against Benetton Treviso.
“I’d assumed he was going to be back in the mix,” said Ulster assistant coach Neil Doak, just back to work himself after 12 days off with sickness.
“He has been on the paddock training so he must be there or thereabouts.”
In addition to Muller and Fitzpatrick, the injury-enforced absentees are Lions pair Stephen Ferris (blindside) and Tommy Bowe (wing)
With nine points the gap between them, Doak stressed the importance of tomorrow night’s first versus second battle
“Beating Scarlets would give us a nice little buffer so Friday night is key to us. We don’t want to give anybody any hopes that we might relinguish anything.
“We need a solid performance. It doesn’t need to be fancy; do our basics well, defend well, when we get opportunities be clinical —which we have been — and get the job done.”
Ulster squad squad to face Scarlets in the RaboDirect PRO12 tonight at Ravenhill, 7.05pm:
Forwards (15): Rob Herring, Rory Best, Niall Annett, Callum Black, Tom Court, John Afoa, Adam Macklin, Lewis Stevenson, Neil McComb, Dan Tuohy, IainHenderson, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Nick Williams, Roger Wilson.
Backs: Paul Marshall, Michael Heaney, Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Paddy Wallace, Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne, Adam D’Arcy.