Return of Grand Slam trio brings buzz back to Ulster, says Gibbes
Ulster have been handed a much-needed boost after their trio of Grand Slam heroes were declared available for the trip to Cardiff on Saturday (3.15pm kick-off).
While it seems unlikely that all three will be pitched straight in from the start at the Arms Park, with Ulster not in European action next weekend, a decision was taken to make Rory Best, Iain Henderson and record-breaker Jacob Stockdale available to Jono Gibbes should he choose to use them.
"They are available, but will they play? I am not sure," said the head coach.
"They are available, and obviously we are on a different calendar to some of the other teams and we are able to formulate some recuperation for them at some other point.
"To have them around is great, from what they have just experienced and what they have come through and to have them back in the environment is a boost for us.
"What part they will play straight away I do not know, but just having their quality around and the kind of guys they are, particularly the forwards.
"It is obviously an exciting period for Jacob given what he has gone through."
Stockdale is most likely to play, while Iain Henderson has less rugby under his belt in recent weeks after a hamstring strain during the Six Nations.
With a run of four games in four weeks to finish the season, as well as the presence of Rob Herring, it seems it would be prudent to give Best at least another week to recover from his international exertions.
It had been hoped that flanker Sean Reidy would have recovered in time to play some part, but both he and Robbie Diack are still nursing injuries, although Charles Piutau is in line to play for a first time since February 9.
Ulster have been out of action for virtually a month with the postponement of the fixture with Glasgow back in February followed by a break for the Six Nations. While, the way this season has been trending, you could be forgiven for thinking a break could hardly do the province any harm, but Gibbes said such a lengthy spell away from the action can de difficult to manage.
"Mentally it has been a bit tough," he said.
"You know you are ready to go, then the game gets called off, then you move into a down week, so mentally it is a little bit of a challenge.
"But I would say probably the benefit of it is we see the sessions we had (Monday and Tuesday) where we are actually really freshened up, we are ready to go, we are ready to play rugby.
"There has been good purpose in our sessions. I feel there is a good buzz about this week. Monday and Tuesday of last week it was a little bit tough to get going and get into it, but we worked really hard Thursday and Friday.
"With no game we were able to go pretty hard Thursday and Friday with guys. The investment was good.
"We had a down weekend watching a pretty inspiring performance on Saturday (from Ireland) and then you come in Monday and there is a good buzz."
While a down week next weekend due to their absence from the knock-out stages of European competition means there will be another break in momentum, Saturday's clash can be considered the start of the season's business end.
Ulster are currently fourth in Guinness PRO14 Conference B, closer to Benetton below them than they are the end-of-season play-off spots. While catching Edinburgh for a place in the quarter-finals seems increasingly unlikely given the pair's differing trajectories, there remains plenty more to play for over the last five games of the campaign.
Their current position would at least yield a play-off for Champions Cup rugby next season but, were they to be overhauled by the chasing Italians, they would be outside the top tier competition for a first time.
With three of their last five games away from home, and the side not having won outside Kingspan in the league since November, it is clear that improvement is required, something made clear to his squad by Gibbes.
"We've had a pretty good discussion, well it was a monologue because only I talked," he said.
"My message to the group was we've got no margin of error.
"That's not necessarily results, you don't automatically think of that, because there's other teams playing and you don't know what's going to happen in rugby.
"I think we've just got to have no margin of error in our preparation so every day has got to be like a final preparation.
"That's how deep we've got to go, how edgy our preparation has got to be.
"Certainly we had a session yesterday that was good, and today, and the signs are there that they understand what I mean by no margin for error in our preparation."