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Leinster v Ulster: Iain Henderson's fitness can lift gloom for Ulster

By Jonathan Bradley

Europe may have been unkind to Ulster last week but Les Kiss' men find themselves in relatively rude health ahead of their return to PRO12 action against Leinster on Friday.

With the bitter taste of Champions Cup disappointment lingering, it is a game both sides would dearly love to win and one that will see the victor take hold of an all-important top four place entering December.

Following surgery on a finger injury sustained during Ireland's World Cup campaign, Iain Henderson played his first game of the season for the province in the comprehensive home defeat to Saracens last Friday.

The 23-year-old came through 80 minutes of action at blindside flanker with no ill effects and is in line for another key role at the RDS this weekend.

Elsewhere, Luke Marshall played for the Ulster A team in their British and Irish Cup loss to Bedford on Saturday, the centre's first appearance since thumb surgery in October ruled him out for six weeks.

Andrew Warwick went the distance in that game in his return from the injured eye socket picked up during Ulster's last inter-provincial away trip against Munster at the end of October.

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Long-term absentees Tommy Bowe (knee), Jared Payne (foot) and Stuart Olding (knee) are now the only members of the squad carrying significant knocks with the latter pair expected to be back on the paddock next month and in the New Year respectively.

Leinster were handed a fitness boost of their own yesterday ahead of the meeting in Dublin, where Ulster have a poor recent record, with the news that fullback Rob Kearney was expected to take part.

The two-time Lion missed the province's European defeats to Wasps and Bath over the last fortnight with a hamstring strain but should be ready to reclaim his No.15 jersey.

Scrum coach John Fogarty revealed: "Rob Kearney looks like he is good to go for this weekend, he was close last weekend.

"He comes back into the fold again, let's see his energy and what he can add.

"This week we're under no illusions about the test in what is a local battle. Our eyes will be wide open.

"Ulster are going to be enthused to come down to the RDS and do a good job. I'm sure they're smarting from their loss so we're going to have two angry packs going at it this weekend.

"We're going to step away from the Champions Cup now and put our eyes on Ulster and the PRO12. We're fourth at the moment and we want to improve on that position."

While the elder Kearney is back in the fold, the concussions suffered by Sean O'Brien, Mike McCarthy and Richardt Strauss continue to be monitored ahead of the team announcement on Thursday.

With Eoin Reddan dropped from the 23 for the loss at the Rec on Saturday, and Luke McGrath offering a brighter showing off the bench than starter, and former Ulsterman, Isaac Boss, Leo Cullen also has a decision to make at scrum-half.

Ireland flanker Rhys Ruddock, who travelled to the World Cup as a late replacement and appeared off the bench in the quarter-final loss to Argentina, has said both teams will be out with a point to prove.

"We have a massive challenge against Ulster and we know how difficult it will be, but if we want to take any positives we have to start this weekend," he said.

"It seems like two teams with a point to prove, playing for the same position in the league and both teams will approach it with the same attitude and look to stamp their authority on the game.

"It's not really about looking ahead there; if we don't perform well this week and next week, and make those improvements, it's not going to happen just because it's the Champions Cup. It's about the short term and we need the performance this week."

"Once you bring all the little pieces together, and do it with the right attitude, you can definitely up the performance by five to 10 per cent each week.

"We've got a good run going into the next couple of games; we'll be tested but I think we can learn a lot and make big improvements."

Belfast Telegraph


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