Marcell Coetzee back in frame as Ulster hold out hope for key duo ahead of Leinster quarter-final
As they prepare to take on South African opposition in the shape of Southern Kings at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday (5.30pm kick-off), Ulster have been handed the considerable boost of a return to fitness by their own Springbok.
Marcell Coetzee hasn't featured since the win over Leicester Tigers exactly two months ago yesterday, but, with the key Champions Cup quarter-final with Leinster just 10 days away, is in line to feature this weekend.
While Iain Henderson will not, the province do remain hopeful that he will be back in time for that last-eight clash despite the lock missing out on Ireland's final Six Nations game last weekend with a knee injury.
Ulster scrum coach Aaron Dundon said yesterday: "We are hoping he is going to be right for the quarter-final next week. At the moment, we don't have a definite answer, it's day by day for him and we will see next week.
"Coetzee has been training for a couple of weeks so he is in line to play this weekend hopefully. But it's going to be another week or two with Luke Marshall, the same with David Busby. They are coming back from knee injuries so it is going to be a couple of weeks for them to do a bit more training. This week is going to be a bit soon.
"Craig Gilroy, he is a week by week situation with his back. Same with Will Addison, it is a week by week situation with those two."
The prospects of Addison being ready for Leinster now seem remote but Dundon said neither he nor Gilroy was definitively ruled out.
"It's unlikely," he said. "But still, they are both so important to us that fingers crossed we get them involved for a big game next week."
With the end of the Six Nations last week and European action up next, this week's Guinness PRO14 action can feel as if caught between two stools, with Dundon admitting that things can feel somewhat disjointed.
"It can be," he said. "It's a little bit more challenging as well because we've a lot of players over in Boston (with Ulster A) at the minute, so we're quite thin.
"But from the first day we came back. we talked about the Kings. We got beaten up a little over there in September's win by the Kings' pack, especially around their maul, and we've challenged the boys to turn that round.
"So they've a bit of a point to prove and that's energised them a bit. I think that's the way you have to approach it. As I said, we're not really talking about next week yet with the players.
"Obviously we won over there but we didn't get the performance that we should have, so we're challenging the forward pack this week, we want to turn that around and we've a point to prove."
Ulster are unbeaten in six games in all competitions, their 16-point haul in the league over that span putting them right in the middle of a congested PRO14 play-off race. The province currently sit in the third and final post-season spot, four points clear of Scarlets in fourth.
With only one point separating them and second-placed Benetton, Dundon is looking up not down.
"The Kings, they are near the bottom of the conference but they are a very dangerous team and they have some really attacking threats," he said.
"They have scored some tries and they have a driving maul that we saw against Cardiff, so we can't underestimate them and we want the players to focus on this game.
"The coaching staff have done a bit of work already in regards to looking at Leinster, but we want to go out and put in a big performance this week and get a win as it is so important for us in the position we are in, in the league.
"We have a lot of games coming up, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Leinster, that we want to really win that second spot."
Few would have predicated them to be in such a position earlier this year, and there is little doubt that their set-piece improvement has had a major part to play in the improved prospects.
While Ulster's scrum was pushed all over the park in some earlier outings, now at the very least parity is the norm, while the maul has become a weapon.
"It was so frustrating," said Dundon of the previous struggles. "The first couple of games this season were good but we went through a block - Cheetahs away, Connacht, Munster (at home), two Champions Cup games - when we really struggled and I was really frustrated at the time.
"We actually haven't changed much since then. I speak to Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek a lot, he's a good friend, a mentor of mine, and he was saying just stick to your processes.
"Obviously you've got new guys coming in Marty (Moore), Eric (O'Sullivan), you'd got different combinations. Those boys have scrummed a lot together, even when Rob Herring comes in, the same props, the same hookers, they're gelling well.
"At the start there was a lot of changes among the players we put out, that's definitely helped our scrum in last couple of months.
"The last few months we've been progressing really well, the lineout's been better, the maul's been good, the scrum's good. Fair play to the boys, they've been working hard at it."
While Dundon can naturally take pride in the scrum improvements, he is coming to the end of his time at Ulster. Having originally joined to work under Les Kiss in 2017, he will be moving on in the summer to an as yet unknown role.
"I've loved it," he said of his time here. "I really enjoyed it and there's massive learnings for me. Working with the coaching staff here and the players, it's been awesome.
"We've got a tight-knit group. I've enjoyed working with these boys. Every morning you come in, there's a smile on the face and it's quite energising, the way they get along, they work hard together and that's pleasing for me."