Scarlets v Ulster: Cooney's release from Ireland camp is a major boost
Ulster have been boosted by the return of scrum-half John Cooney from Ireland camp in time to take on Scarlets in Llanelli this evening (7.35pm kick-off).
The former Leinster and Connacht man has been in fine form this season - indeed, he has arguably been the side's best player during his first campaign in Belfast - and was considered unlucky to miss out on Joe Schmidt's initial Six Nations squad.
Injury to Leinster's Luke McGrath saw him called down to Carton House this week for training, but after Kieran Marmion was picked to back-up Conor Murray, the 27-year-old was released back to his province.
His presence in Parc y Scarlets has left Ulster with an unchanged half-back pairing after Johnny McPhillips was passed fit. The young out-half was taken off before half-time against Edinburgh last week with a shoulder problem but has come through training unscathed to claim the No.10 shirt, although unlike in previous weeks there is specialised 10 cover on the bench in the shape of Pete Nelson.
With Cooney and McPhillips ready for action, head coach Jono Gibbes, in his first away game in charge, has made only two changes.
Winger and top scorer Craig Gilroy is ruled out after the rib injury he sustained last time out and is replaced by Andrew Trimble, who will be making his first start for the province since the loss to Leinster in the first weekend of January.
The only other alteration comes in the front-row where Rob Herring, who has been carrying an elbow injury, drops to the bench to be replaced by John Andrew.
Another back from a lengthy absence is Paul Marshall, who, with Jonny Stewart on Ireland Under-20s duty, will be seen for the first time in 2018.
Ulster have not won away to the Scarlets in their last five attempts but are fast running out of time to get their season back on track.
Sat in fourth place in their conference, they face an uphill task to make the expanded PRO14 play-offs, while Champions Cup qualification is by no means guaranteed. At present, fourth spot would deliver only a play-off game.