Neil Doak welcomes Ulster headache as Jared Payne, Rory Best and Tommy Bowe return
After what has been an injury-plagued campaign for his team, Ulster head coach Neil Doak will have one of his strongest squads of the season available for the trip to face Connacht on Saturday afternoon.
Jared Payne, Rory Best and Tommy Bowe are all set to feature for the first time since January following their involvement with Ireland’s victorious Six Nations campaign, Paddy Jackson and Chris Henry have come through their recent returns to action unscathed, and Stuart McCloskey is back from the four-week ban resulting from his red card against Edinburgh back in February.
It is also understood that Roger Wilson will still be considered for selection despite his recent arrest for an alleged driving offence.
With Stuart Olding and Andrew Trimble lost for the season through injury, and Nick Williams banned until the start of next campaign, it means that Luke Marshall — banned until the home game with Leinster at the end of this month — is the only short-term absentee for the weekend interpro with Pat Lam’s men.
On his new-found strength in depth, the Ulster coach said: “The players are well aware that there’s competition for places now at the back end of the season.
“There are a few guys that haven’t been with us and it’s going to take a little bit of time for people to gel and get the calling systems back into their head, and we still have a few injured who aren’t going to be with us for the rest of the season which is disappointing, but everybody knows that these are big games that you want to be involved in.
“For players who want to get into our starting team, the 23, and that extended World Cup squad, they know they need to perform and be on the top of their game.
“You need competition, you need a little bit of edge, to make sure that people are putting their hands up.
“It’s a headache but it’s a welcome headache.”
Connacht are enjoying a strong season, especially at home — the westerners are sixth in the Pro12 table and have lost only twice at the Sportsground in all competitions this year — but they have endured a turbulent couple of weeks.
Head coach Pat Lam’s Pro12 misconduct charge for comments made following the controversial defeat to Cardiff, a heavy loss to provincial rivals Munster, their Challenge Cup exit at the hands of Gloucester last Friday, and the arrest of full-back Mils Muliaina for an alleged sexual assault shortly after the final whistle, have all threatened to derail momentum to some degree.
Doak, however, feels that all distractions will be put to one side come Saturday.
“Once you get to game time, what’s happened outside that is immaterial,” he said.
“Both sides are fighting hard, us to stay in the top two and Connacht to stay in the top six, so for both teams it’s a huge game.
“They’ve already beat Leinster and Munster in Galway and as Pat said earlier in the week they’ll be looking to make a bit of history by beating us as well,” Doak added.
“At home they’ve lost one to Edinburgh, drawn one (to Cardiff) and lost to Exeter in the Challenge Cup, so it’s not an easy place to go to.
“They’ll be disappointed on the back of last week’s game, but they’ll be a different animal this weekend.
“We’re under no illusions that it’s going to be tough.”