Muller's return is huge lift for Ulster's Heineken hopes
Ulster squad returning to full strength as Pienaar and Bowe are also available
WITH European matters now taking centre stage for the next two weekends, Ulster welcome back influential skipper Johann Muller for Saturday's first Heineken Cup double-header clash with Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill (kick-off 6pm).
And things are also looking up for the Ulster coach with the return of Ruan Pienaar from autumn international duty while Tommy Bowe is also expected to be back in an Ulster shirt following his Ireland duties.
Muller has not played since suffering a calf injury against the Cardiff Blues in late October and the 33-year-old's return is particularly timely for Ulster coach Mark Anscombe, who has been hit by injury problems in the engine room with other second rows Lewis Stevenson and Iain Henderson both sidelined.
However, the situation is not so clear-cut with Jared Payne reportedly still under observation over his groin injury and must therefore be doubtful for Saturday with Ulster Rugby reporting that the Kiwi will be assessed regarding his involvement later in the week.
Payne picked up the injury after featuring in last month's defeat at the Scarlets and the best hope is that he may ultimately be fit enough for some involvement in Ulster's return to European action following on from their two opening wins over Leicester Tigers and that seismic result at Montpellier which has put Anscombe's men in control of Pool five.
With Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave both now looking like probable starters, and helpfully both are looking in good form, Payne's best hope may now be to make Ulster's bench.
Pienaar (pictured) returns to action, after his spell away with South Africa during the autumn internationals. He was rested for last weekend's 19-11 win in Zebre, and his big-game experience will be a key factor in Ulster's plan to take four, or preferably five, points off Treviso.
Bowe should also be champing at the bit for some action again after having a rather downbeat Guinness Series with Ireland which saw him play all three Tests but fail to bag any tries.
Rob Herring and Mike McComish both picked up knocks at Zebre – a stinger and bang to the hip joint respectively – which saw them leave the action early but both are expected to train and theoretically be fine by the weekend which, in Herring's case, will be a considerable relief with Rory Best currently out of action.
Anscombe remained pretty positive about Herring's chances following the Zebre win, though there clearly was a concern after he had to leave the field in a dazed-looking condition.
"He's doing fine and we're going to have to assess him during the week," the coach said.
There is also a positive development long-term absentee Paddy Wallace, who has returned to full training following the ACL injury that he had sustained in February.
The 34-year-old is expected to be available for selection this weekend and seems more likely to feature for the Ulster Ravens in their British and Irish Cup clash at Ayr.
While there is no indication of when Chris Henry will be fit again, there is better news regarding Ian Porter, who is back in training and seemingly bound to feature for the Ravens.
However, prop Paddy McCallister has suffered another setback after re-aggravating a hamstring tear while playing for Ballynahinch at the weekend. McCallister is expected to be ruled out for four to six weeks.
Ulster will be going all out to nail two wins over Treviso, who have failed to even register a point in Europe after their two opening pool games ended in defeat to Montpellier at home before Leicester Tigers turned them over 34-3 at Welford Road.
And the Italians' PRO12 form has hardly been electric either as they have failed to win their last four games – albeit gaining losing bonuses from three defeats and then last weekend's high-scoring draw with Cardiff Blues – which has seen them positioned in 10th place and only six points ahead of Zebre.
The Ulster coach will certainly want to play his strongest hand for Saturday's first outing in these pivotal back-to-back European clashes with the Italians and winning outcomes are essential to Ulster's progress in the competition.
Mind you, the coach knows that his squad will have to be much sharper when they return to Italy than was the case last weekend when they took on Zebre and won without really impressing.
"Overall, it was a pretty sub-standard performance," Anscombe said.
"Some of the decisions around the breakdown were unfathomable but that's what you get sometimes and we have to look at ourselves and we know that's not good enough and that's not what we expect," he stated.