Coach Joe Schmidt calls up Ulster eight for Irish panel
Eight Ulster players have been included in Joe Schmidt's extended 46-man squad which has been selected to cover both Ireland's Six Nations opening two games in their title defence and next Friday's Ireland Wolfhounds outing against England Saxons in Cork.
Established internationals Rory Best and Tommy Bowe have naturally made the cut along with Iain Henderson, who was part of last year's Six Nations triumph and is expected to play his first game of the season tomorrow for Ulster against Leicester Tigers following hip surgery in September.
Also included is Jared Payne, who won his first cap against South Africa in the autumn series but was then ruled him out of the rest of the series due to a foot injury.
The trio of Darren Cave, Robbie Diack and Craig Gilroy, who all started against Georgia in November, and Rob Herring, who has so far won just one Ireland cap on last summer's tour to Argentina, are also named in the panel.
Ulster would have had a greater presence in this extensive squad but for their injury profile. On the missing list are Andrew Trimble, who was a star performer in Ireland's dramatic title win, and Luke Marshall, but both could yet feature later on in the Six Nations as they continue their rehabilitation from their respective toe and concussion issues with a view to getting game-time for Ulster.
However, ruled out of taking any part of the championship are Paddy Jackson (elbow), Stuart Olding (elbow) and Chris Henry, who has undergone heart surgery, while Dan Tuohy (thumb) also looks likely to be missing out.
With Ireland Wolfhounds due to play in Cork a week today, it would seem that this game will provide the most likely avenue for game-time for the majority of the Ulster contingent.
It is thought that Henderson will feature for the shadow side in a bid to get vital game-time under his belt ahead of Ireland's opening game against Italy in Rome on February 7. Payne may well also get a run-out to put his credentials on show for another possible outing at centre, though he may have just too much ground to make up on what is thought to be the potential starting midfield, barring injury, of Gordon D'Arcy and Robbie Henshaw.
Cave, Diack, Gilroy and Herring will also doubtless be hoping for some involvement in the game with the Saxons, though it remains to be seen how Schmidt will approach this game which seems likely to see Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien get all-important outings as they come back from injury.
Jonathan Sexton has been named in the squad despite being ruled out until at least February 14's hosting of France due to concussion. The squad contains two uncapped players in Leinster back rower Jack Conan and Connacht prop Nathan White and they will be hosting an open training session in Belfast over the course of the Six Nations.
Ireland's Six Nations fixtures: Feb 7 v Italy, Rome; Feb 14 v France, Dublin; Mar 1 v England, Dublin; Mar 14 v Wales, Cardiff; Mar 21 v Scotland, Edinburgh.