Ulster lick wounds as win over Ospreys comes at a cost
Ulster may have lifted themselves to second in the Guinness PRO12 table with Friday's 25-16 win over the Ospreys at the Kingspan Stadium but head coach Neil Doak is still looking forward to the return of both his international contingent and some injured stars.
While only try-scorer Tommy Bowe and provincial captain Rory Best were involved in Ireland's attritional 26-23 victory over Australia on Saturday, Robbie Diack was also kept with the national side and a host of players missed Friday's win due to a variety of ailments.
With a visit to Thomond Park for an inter-provincial tussle with Munster to come this week, before the resumption of their seemingly doomed European Champions Cup campaign, Ulster have now won two games out of two during a month disrupted by the Test window.
On the challenge of coping without some frontline stars, Doak said: "It is a difficult period.
"It's the teams that can just keep nipping away and getting points on the board and getting the wins and keeping themselves in and around that top four (that have the best chance of success)."
Ulster were not commenting on media reports that Chris Henry requires heart surgery that will keep him out for the rest of this season while Andrew Trimble will not play again in 2014 due to a toe ligament problem.
Dan Tuohy and Iain Henderson have been out of action for months, although the former is thought to be nearing a return in the not too distant future, and Ruan Pienaar has yet to take the field this season after suffering a knee injury on South Africa duty back in September.
Luke Marshall also picked up a knee injury representing the Ravens in October that will keep him out until next month.
In the shorter term, the foot injury that denied Jared Payne a second Ireland cap last week should not have him missing for long and Paddy Jackson will be monitored ahead of the trip to Limerick following a bang to the shoulder on Friday.
With so many absentees, Doak is hoping that those filling in can keep his side in touch before the star players return.
He added: "Hopefully whenever the cavalry come back, all 14 or 15 of them, if we're there or thereabouts then we should be able to kick on towards the end of the season."
One player already fit for a return to action is Michael Allen.
The Ulster back, capable of playing either at centre or wing, has been out of action since dislocating his shoulder while playing for the Ravens at the start of October.
Speaking of his spell on the sidelines, he said: "Being injured is horrible, everyone wants to be playing.
"You just have to get your head around it then work on coming back fitter and stronger.
"Thankfully it's been resolved and it was nothing more serious than a dislocation.
"There was no ligament or muscle damage and no surgery was needed.
"I got in the gym and did my rehab work with the physio and now just can't wait to get back out there."
A return to the Ulster team against Munster would be an ideal way for Allen to spend his 24th birthday and the double Schools' Cup winner is relishing the prospect of coming back in a hotly-contested derby game.
"That would be a brilliant present," he enthused.
"We played down there last year with a team that wasn't expected to do as well as we did and we managed to come away with a win.
"Playing an inter-pro is great, coming up against your counterparts from the other provinces."