Ulster could find themselves facing a back row crisis when high-flying Ospreys come to Ravenhill on Friday night.
Coach Brian McLaughlin’s options are limited, to say the least, following flanker Willie Faloon’s withdrawal against Munster at half-time on Saturday night suffering from a shoulder/neck injury.
Thomas Anderson plugged the resultant gap, but that was an interim measure for the truth of the matter is the loss of Faloon, coupled with the unavailability of injured David Pollock (ankle), has left Ulster without a genuine open side flanker.
Prior to Faloon’s injury, four of Ulster’s eight senior back row forward choices were out of contention, with Pollock having joined long-term absentees Robbie Diack, Tamaiti Horua, and Matt McCullough on the sidelines.
That meant that, as of the close of play on Saturday evening, Ulster were down to the bare bones with only three loose forwards still standing — British and Irish blind side Stephen Ferris, captain and No. 8 Chris Henry and stand-in number seven Anderson.
With a squad announcement due at lunchtime today McLaughlin had his fingers tightly crossed that this morning’s medical updates on Faloon and Pollock would be positive.
If not, Dungannon’s Ali Birch could be a runner for an upgrade.
Described by IRFU past-president Andy Crawford — himself a former open side — as being “an out and out number seven at a time when there aren’t too many of those about”, he had an excellent match on Sunday in helping the Ulster Ravens beat their Leinster counterparts 18-10 at UCD’s Belfield complex.
Significantly, McLaughlin lauded Birch for having had “a very good game” in the victors’ back row alongside Stephen Leckey “who did pretty well, too” and Stephen Mulholland.
Neil McComb is another who could come into the reckoning depending on the state of health of Faloon and Pollock. Although he played at lock for the victorious Ravens, he does have back row experience.
Meanwhile, the Ulster coach is hopeful that Paddy Wallace will make it following a recurrence of his ankle injury.
“He should be okay; we’ll see,” was McLaughlin’s terse assessment.
One thing of which he is certain is that Friday night’s star-studded visitors will be coming to Belfast intent on avenging their 20-16 mid-September Liberty Stadium defeat by Ulster.
Ospreys’ New Year’s Day derby victory over Cardiff Blues havs taken them to second place in the table and speaking after that win the Swansea club’s forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys said: “The Magners League is a priority for us this year.
“We feel that we haven’t done ourselves justice in this competition for the last couple of years so we want to be there at the end of the season for the play-offs.
“We’ve got a few games to play yet, but we’re in the right place. This squad is very competitive for places and the boys want to play.
“But we’re going to have to be prudent with our selections for Ulster. We’ve got a couple who are nursing injuries and there are boys who haven’t played a lot of rugby. So, it’s a balance of wanting to protect some people, but wanting to go to Ulster to be competitive.”
McLaughlin responded by saying: “Whoever they send over we know they’ll be strong. They have plenty of strength in depth.”