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Stephen Ferris will get huge welcome and Ulster Rugby can call on Paddy Jackson after Irish omission

By Michael Sadlier

He's back and no, we don’t mean Paddy Jackson’s somewhat unexpected return.

 Rarely has a team announcement been waited on with such anticipation with the rumour mill cranking up all week that a certain Stephen Ferris would be named in Ulster's match day squad for tonight's meeting with the Scarlets (kick-off 7.05pm).

Few thought it could ever come to this after the 28-year-old encountered so many setbacks on the rocky road to recovery, but now, at last, and even after suffering a setback last week, there is something more than just lines telling us that the flanker is 'making progress, but not there yet' and a welcome departure from all the staple fare put out there since he was helped off the Ravenhill turf back in November 2012.

His agonised expression as he left the field that night against Edinburgh was only the beginning of what has been a complicated recovery from his ankle injury – one which has required three operations thanks to knee issues as well – and a journey which has taken the Ireland and Lions flanker into a seemingly endless and often bleak-looking attempt to get back.

But he has endured and come through the short-term contract extensions and all the stuff about moving to Japan. And just to have him togged out at Ravenhill again – though it is assumed he is to get limited game-time tonight off the bench – is sure to give the player, his team-mates and the paying public a huge lift

After having been through so much doubt and uncertainty – in fairness his team-mates have maintained throughout most of his period that Ferris has been fairly inspirational in terms of his, by necessity, lonely approach to recovering fitness and confidence – the relief at pulling on an Ulster jersey again and taking his place on the replacements' bench will doubtless be tempered with extreme tension at potentially playing again after 15 months away.

"To have him back again will be like having a new player around the place even though he's been here for so long," assistant coach Neil Doak said. "It will be a focal point and a boost for all," he added, which pretty much summed it all up.

Ferris has, in public, maintained his belief that this day would come and that, all things being equal, he may yet even be able to play some part in next month's huge Heineken Cup quarter-final by being added to the squad.

But that's all for later. He knows only too well how rapidly things can change and few in the game have suffered so much misfortune with injury as the Maghaberry man.

What he needs now is to get on the park, feel the pace and absorb the hits of a full-on game and hopefully get through it all and continue to build up some game-time.

And there are no guarantees of anything, whether it's a new deal or a place in Mark Anscombe's ultra-competitive back row. Yes, but just playing again and staying fit is what it is all about and expect an enormous reception for him tonight.

Of course, the last thing he needs is to let any of this inevitable hype take away from the fact that the side have a game to win tonight as they continue to pursue a top four finish in the PRO12.

With this being a rearranged fixture, from the one which had to be called off on St Valentine's night, third-placed Ulster need to keep pushing ahead of nearest rivals the Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors – the latter who have two games in hand.

Then we also have the shock of Paddy Jackson (pictured) then being unexpectedly dropped from Ireland's bench to start against the Scarlets.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt explained Jackson's omission for Ian Madigan – who can also cover centre, wing at full-back – as being essentially pragmatic.

"I guess it's been pretty combative; we're just starting to creak maybe a little bit and we just needed the coverage.

"It is certainly no disrespect for what Paddy has done – I think he's been great value so far. It's just Ian's ability to cover maybe midfield, full-back and the 10 spot. It's purely that."

Jackson's misfortune, though, could well turn out to be Ulster's opportunity as the 22-year-old – who has impressed with his cameos off Ireland's bench – is likely to be intent on letting Schmidt know that his call was hardly the correct one.

So extra motivation there for Jackson to put in a big performance, though hopefully the hurt will not detract from his focus of hooking up with Ruan Pienaar again just as he did so well for the Dragons clash two weeks ago.

Other notable calls have brought John Afoa and Nick Williams back with both starting tonight while Ricky Lutton makes way for Afoa and Roger Wilson, who wins his 150th Ulster cap tonight, is on the blindside flank.

This means that the versatile Robbie Diack finds himself having another outing in the second row alongside skipper Johann Muller.

The backline has only one change to the staring line-up from last time as Luke Marshall is sidelined with concussion, meaning that 21-year-old Stuart McCloskey – who replaced Marshall in the Dragons clash – gets his first start alongside the in-form Darren Cave with Tommy Bowe, two times try scorer on his return to playing last time out, Jared Payne and the youthful Rory Scholes all part of a potent looking attacking unit.

With Craig Gilroy returning to the match day squad for bench duty, the only other notable absentee is Paul Marshall who has been left out entirely with Michael Heaney taking his place alongside Niall Annett, Tom Court, Lutton, Lewis Stevenson, Ricky Andrew and a certain S Ferris as fellow Ulster replacements.

Hopefully, it will be a night to remember for the right reasons.

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