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Hooray for Chris Henry as he makes a special return

By Jonathan Bradley

With 20 minutes remaining Chris Henry stripped off his red substitute's bib, approached the touchline and was roared back into action.

Back in an Ulster jersey, albeit with an unfamiliar number 20 on the back, the openside received a huge ovation as he strode forward to make his first appearance since starting against Toulon way back in October.

Dedicated to the cause and always affable, the 30-year-old has long been a much-loved figure in the Ulster set-up, but the warmth emanating from the terraces last night was all for a performance that at one point seemed like it may never come.

Having been denied his 17th Ireland cap after taking ill on the morning of the November Test against South Africa at the Aviva Stadium, when it later emerged that Henry had suffered a mini-stroke, there was a genuine fear among fans that we may have seen the last of him in an Ulster shirt.

Such trepidation turned out to be premature however and ever since the December morning when Henry tweeted a picture of himself back in the Kingspan Stadium gym, his return to the pitch has been much anticipated.

That excitement was ramped up during the week when, after he was cleared for action on Tuesday afternoon, the mysterious AN Other named on the Ulster bench turned out to be Henry.

Replacing Clive Ross for the final quarter, the scene was reminiscent of Stephen Ferris' comeback game against the Scarlets just over a year ago.

That evening, the sadly-retired blindside announced his return to action by driving an unsuspecting Scarlet so far backwards that he may as well have ended up in the stands and while Henry's own resumption of play was more understated, these were no easy minutes.

Shortly after he joined the fray, Cardiff's Lions wing Alex Cuthbert crossed for a try, converted by Gareth Ansombe - son of Ulster's most recent former coach - and what had been a 21-0 lead was quickly down to just four points.

Henry was involved quickly at the breakdown, teaming up with the unlikely figure of Ian Humphreys to win a penalty on the deck and from there Ulster were able to regain their control on proceedings.

That they ended up earning a bonus point made for a more than satisfactory evening for head coach Neil Doak.

After the game Henry beamed as he spoke about a "very special" night for himself and the "incredible" reception that he was given from the fans.

While admitting that the outing had left him "emotionally and physically drained", and joking that his lungs were still feeling the pace, his focus had already switched to a stepping up of his return.

With Ulster's next game a visit to Connacht two weeks from today, he is already talking about giving Doak a selection headache.

On the contrary, the Ulster coach's troubles appear to finally be easing as, with out-half Paddy Jackson also returning last night, his squad nears a clean bill of health.

While Stuart Olding's own comeback was ruined by a nasty looking knee injury and Andrew Trimble won't be seen again this season, Test players will soon return and everyone else is expected to be fit.

For what is going to be a crucial four-game battle for play-off places and positions, it may be a case of just in time.

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