Paddy Jackson's return can inspire Ulster in play-off push
With Ulster's PRO12 play-off hopes rapidly approaching make or break time, Paddy Jackson's return for today's Ulster Ravens game looks to have huge significance for the senior side's ambitions.
The 23-year-old has been selected to start for the Ravens against Munster A in the inter-provincial friendly at Nenagh (kick-off 4.30pm) for what will be his first game since dislocating an elbow in the record 60-22 European defeat at Toulon in January.
Ulster coach Neil Doak will be banking on Jackson coming through unscathed as the Ireland international looks certain to be the starting out-half in next Friday's must-win clash with the Cardiff Blues at the Kingspan Stadium.
With Ian Humphreys struggling for form, having Jackson back on board for what should hopefully be the remainder of the season will give Ulster much-needed presence in a pivotal position as Doak's second-placed side aim to hit back after suffering a shock defeat last time out at the Dragons.
And with only five regulation games remaining and a mere eight points separating leaders Glasgow Warriors from fifth-placed Leinster, the race to make the top four is now at its most intense so having frontline squad members back and playing for the business end of the campaign is clearly a priority.
Ulster's international contingent of Rory Best, Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne and Iain Henderson are due to return from the Six Nations with the trip to Connacht on April 11 seeing their likely involvement and that game may also see a possible run-out for Chris Henry, who has not played since his heart issue back in November, as well as Stuart Olding.
After facing Connacht, Ulster have a very tricky looking final three regulation games with top four challengers Leinster, Munster - both at home - and current leaders Glasgow, away, all on the agenda.
Doak has selected a fairly strong squad to take on Munster A with the need for a decent hit-out being the requirement ahead of next week's return to competitive action.
Paul Marshall, Robbie Diack, Lewis Stevenson, Andrew Warwick and Bronson Ross - usually on the bench for the senior side - are all given starts while Mike Stanley is selected at outside centre.
ULSTER RAVENS: J Owens, R Andrew, M Stanley, M Best, R Scholes, Paddy Jackson, P Marshall: A Warwick, J Andrew, B Ross, L Stevenson (Capt), N McComb, F Taggart, S Reidy, R Diack.
Replacements: Paul Jackson, D Ryan, R Lutton, S Mulholland, D Shanahan, M Heaney, K Joyce, J Rosborough.