Nine Ulster Rugby players called for Irish duty
Ulster's progress in recent seasons is mirrored in the Ireland squad named yesterday for next month's two-Test trip to Argentina.
Nine of those in Joe Schmidt's 30-strong group are from Ulster and they include two as yet uncapped players in hooker Rob Herring and lock/back row forward Robbie Diack.
Both are South African, with Herring qualifying for Ireland via his ancestry and Diack by virtue of having lived here since 2008.
Herring, 24, has had a phenomenal season. With Rory Best having missed so much of the campaign through injury and Irish duties, the Cape Town-born hooker, who joined Ulster from Western Province two years ago in the hope of boosting his prospects at international level, has packed down on 26 occasions.
So too has Diack, whose appearances this term have included several as captain. To date he has amassed a total of 128 Ulster caps, which means that when the new season gets under way, only four players still on the books will be able to boast more appearances – Darren Cave, Rory Best, Roger Wilson and Andrew Trimble.
Three of that quartet will be on the plane for Buenos Aires, with Wilson the unfortunate exception. The gifted No 8 forward's solitary cap to date was against Japan while on tour with Ireland in June 2005 and at the age of 32, it is beginning to look unlikely that he will add to it.
In contrast, Cave's prospects have improved somewhat with Brian O'Driscoll having played his last international match. Having just turned 27, the outside-centre certainly has had encouragement from Schmidt since he succeeded Declan Kidney who appeared to have discounted the Ulster player.
The other Ulster inclusions were as expected, which means hooker Best, lock/blind-side Iain Henderson, open-side Chris Henry, out-half Paddy Jackson, inside-centre Luke Marshall and winger Andrew Trimble will be on the Argentina-bound plane when it leaves on Sunday, June 1, the day after the PRO12 final in which most if not all of the Ireland squad's 10 Leinster representatives will feature.
But it was not all good news for Ulster's Ireland internationals yesterday, as Lions wing Tommy Bowe, lock Dan Tuohy and back-three player Craig Gilroy failed to make it on this occasion.
Bowe's season has been seriously disrupted by injury, witness participation in just 13 of Ulster's 30 matches in which he scored only half a dozen tries – a poor return by his high standards. And he played no part in Ireland's 2014 Six Nations Championship triumph.
Tuohy, who will be 29 next month, played 21 games for Ulster in the just-ended season during which he completed a century of appearances for the province.
But he, too, has been beset by injuries at the wrong times.
He had an outstanding game against Scotland in February in the opening match of the Six Nations Championship when he stepped up on the morning of the game to fill in for Paul O'Connell when he was taken ill.
But the following week against Wales he broke his right arm. And having recovered from that, he then had the misfortune to break his left hand.
In his absence, young Ulster team-mate Henderson made hay in the sunshine, culminating in an excellent engine-room display against Leinster on Saturday night at the RDS with Schmidt in attendance to witness it first-hand.
Gilroy, too, was one of Ulster's best performers in that PRO12 semi-final defeat, but for him it was a case of too little too late at the end of a season in which injury and a loss of form have taken their toll.
Herring and Diack are not the only uncapped players; they share that status with Munster's promising prop James Cronin and Connacht scrum-half Kieran Marmion.