Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar return to boost Ulster
Ulster have first-choice half-backs Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson available for Saturday's RaboDirect PRO12 clash with Zebre at Stadio XXV Aprile (2pm).
Tight-head Declan Fitzpatrick is available for selection, too, having been deployed from the bench for the final 15 minutes of Sunday's Ireland-New Zealand classic.
However, wing ace Tommy Bowe, who started in all three of Ireland's Guinness Series Tests, will sit this one out in order to give him a break ahead of Ulster's home and away Heineken Cup dates with Benetton Treviso on December 7 and 14.
Captain Johann Muller, ruled out for four to six weeks after suffering a calf injury in Ulster's victory over Cardiff Blues on October 25, has made significant progress.
But although he would like game-time before facing Treviso in the first of those back-to-back clashes, the Ulster management team may prefer to bide their time rather than pushing him back into the front line just a little too early and risking a breakdown.
Jared Payne, like Muller, has responded well to treatment for the groin injury which has sidelined him since Ulster's defeat by the Scarlets in Llanelli on November 2. But with Europe in mind, he is a definite non-starter this weekend. Rob Herring will replace the injured Rory Best as hooker.
Defence coach Jonny Bell confirmed: "Paddy (Jackson) and Declan (Fitzpatrick) will be involved in some capacity. Looking at the matches coming in the next few weeks they need game-time.
"They're excited and ready to get back into it. Ruan (Pienaar) is back in the country having been away with the Springboks and he'll be coming in towards the end of the week. We just wanted to give him a little bit of time out to refresh and get himself ready before playing.
"Zebre will be a real challenge. Gone are the days when you went to Italy pretty confident that you'd get the points," Bell added.
"They scored four tries against us over there last season and really ought to have won."
Meanwhile, with Ulster resigned to being without Best until mid-January, Ireland too are having to draw up contingency plans ahead of the Six Nations.
Joe Schmidt's men will open their account with a home game against Scotland on February 2, leaving hooker Best very little opportunity to get game-time ahead of that curtain-raiser if post-operative prognosis proves accurate.
Having broken his arm in Ireland's 24-22 defeat by the All Blacks on Sunday, he underwent surgery yesterday to stabilise the fracture.
The results of an MRI scan on Iain Henderson, who tore a hamstring on Friday night while on Ulster duty, suggest he will be out for up to six weeks. So he has a chance of being back for Ulster's post-Christmas Heineken Cup dates against Montpellier and Leicester.