Ulster's Iain Henderson all fired up for final push at top four finish
After another injury-riddled campaign, Ulster's Iain Henderson is out to make up for lost time over the season's final weeks.
Following his starring role in Ireland's ultimately disappointing World Cup campaign, Henderson has spent two separate spells on the sidelines with an injured hand and torn hamstring this year and tomorrow's game with Zebre (4pm kick-off) will represent just his sixth of the year for the province.
After missing the first half of last season with a hip problem, the 24-year-old admits it's been frustrating but, with both himself and fellow Irish star Tommy Bowe ready to boost Ulster's top four hopes, he is aiming to string together a run of games during the Pro12's most critical weeks.
"It's been frustrating, but you have to take it on the chin," he said. "Tommy was delighted to get back last week (for the A side) as well and he's pulled through that.
"These things happen, you just have to get over it and get back on the horse.
"It's been a good training week to get under the belt. Everyone is feeling refreshed and we're raring to go at the weekend."
The trip to Parma is vital if Ulster are to have any hope of ending their silverware drought before it exceeds a decade and the side are aiming to build on the momentum of a win against then table-topping Connacht at Kingspan Stadium two weeks ago that re-invigorated their play-off charge.
While Henderson, just two outings into his comeback from five months out, perhaps didn't want to be without a game last weekend, he can see the benefit for some of his more fatigued teammates.
"It's been a very long season for a lot of people, especially the ones coming off the back of the Six Nations," he said.
"Obviously myself and Tommy have had a longer break than we'd have wanted.
"A bit of momentum would have been nice but at this stage of the season you want the guys who have played so many games to be as fresh as possible. We had a full week training."
With Leinster and Ospreys still to come, Ulster's players have spoken all week about the need to not look beyond the lowly Italians tomorrow.
Despite sitting second from bottom, the hosts have plenty to play for given that either they or Treviso will qualify for next season's Champions Cup, while they gave champions Glasgow something of a scare seven days ago before ultimately losing 43-14.
"We saw last week it was 14-7 at half-time," said Henderson. "Zebre were 25 minutes away from a win.
"They're fighting for that European spot to be the Italian team in the Champions Cup next season and they'll be coming out all guns blazing trying to get the win.
"The whole top side of the table is real tight and the bottom half are all fighting for something too so it'll go on right to the end."
Still heavy favourites tomorrow, Henderson is stressing the need for patience if the squad are to return with the desired winning bonus-point.
"People say you're expected to win but that's a bit harsh given how the Italian teams have come on," he said.
"They're near the bottom, however, I still think they're two of the toughest teams to go away to.
"We've seen them turn over good sides last season and beat us last season.
"There's no reason why we shouldn't be winning, at the top of our game we know that we're a better team.
"We need to be patient and let it come."
Expecting to be well-travelled this weekend, it will be a quick-turnaround for Henderson who, after arriving back in Belfast on Saturday evening, will be straight to Co Meath on Sunday for a training camp ahead of Ireland's summer tour to South Africa.
His first involvement with the national side since the World Cup quarter-final, his return will once again spark debate over his best position.
Having been at his most dynamic when deployed at blindside flanker for Ulster, and he has admitted in the past to prefer, his most recent outings for Ireland have come at lock.
With usual number six Peter O'Mahony still absent, and both flanker CJ Stander (pictured) and lock Ultan Dillane making big impressions during the Six Nations, Henderson says the camp will be his first chance to asses the new lay of the land.
"If it was fully up to me, maybe I'd play 10," he chuckled. "I've said it before and I'll say it many, many times more I'm sure, I just want to get game time.
"Whether I get played in the second-row or get played blindside, I'll play wherever.
"Honestly, I haven't been to Dublin, and I haven't spoken to Joe about it, so I'm not sure about the dynamic. That's all speculation at the moment.
"This will only be my 8th or 9th game this season with some huge gaps in between. I just need to get game time."
Win against Zebre tomorrow and the hope of banking some in the Pro12 play-offs will only grow.
Pro12 League: Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, tomorrow 4pm