Ulster team news: Henderson leads Ireland trio return ahead of Ospreys clash
Dan McFarland has been boosted by the return of an Irish international trio for tonight's trip to Bridgend to face Ospreys in the PRO14 (7.35pm kick-off).
Having exceeded expectations in reaching the last eight of the Champions Cup, Ulster still face a battle to qualify for next season's competition with only seven games remaining.
With four of those away from Kingspan Stadium, improving on their travels is key and the province can call upon Iain Henderson, John Cooney and Jordi Murphy this evening.
Henderson injured his hand against Leicester Tigers last month but is back to lift his side, as well as ease Ireland's second-row injury concerns.
Henderson and Tadhg Beirne have both played no part in the Six Nations, while Devin Toner has been ruled out for the rest of the campaign after ankle surgery, but the Ulsterman now seems sure to be involved when Ireland travel to Italy next week.
Both Cooney and Murphy have been released from national camp.
Scrum-half Cooney has appeared off the bench in both Six Nations rounds to date, while Murphy has been unused by Joe Schmidt.
The inclusion of the three Test stars gives Ulster a strong line-up, even if Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale, Will Addison and Marcell Coetzee are all absent.
Stuart McCloskey, who wins his 100th Ulster cap, Darren Cave, Cooney and Louis Ludik give the backline an experienced feel along with youngsters Mike Lowry and Angus Kernohan having already been handed plenty of chances at senior level this year.
With the exception of Best, McFarland has named what is essentially his first choice tight-five with Eric O'Sullivan and Marty Moore at prop, and stand-in skipper Alan O'Connor alongside Henderson in the second-row.
Rob Herring comes in for Best in the No.2 jersey, while it's Nick Timoney and Clive Ross linking up with Murphy in the back-row.
A fit-again Sean Reidy is back to boost that unit from the bench.
The game, moved to Brewery Field in Bridgend to ensure a seven-day turnaround for Ospreys ahead of next week’s clash with Munster, will be in unfamiliar surroundings but there will still be an old friend in the hosts’ coaching box with 1999 European Cup winner Allen Clark in charge of the opposition.
The Dungannon man is in his first full season as Ospreys head coach having taken over from Steve Tandy a little over 12 months ago. While the Swansea-based side fell out of the Champions Cup thanks to a play-off loss against Ulster, they currently sit third in their conference, behind only Munster and Glasgow.
Conference A is even tighter than B, however, with two points between a play-off spot and second from bottom.
“Our last game in Bridgend, against Connacht in October, was an excellent occasion on and off the field,” said former hooker Clarke.
“The crowd were fantastic, getting behind the team right up to the final play which earned us a bonus-point win. We’re looking forward to going back there and appreciate the support we get. Hopefully we can make it another memorable occasion.
“Points are precious for all teams with this period of the season going a long way to defining league positions and subsequent play-off spots.
“It’s great to have Bradley Davies back to bolster the team who collectively and individually have a clear understanding of what is required during this mini Six Nations block.”
Ulster team to face Ospreys
(15-9): P Nelson; A Kernohan, D Cave, S McCloskey, L Ludik; M Lowry, J Cooney;
(1-8): E O’Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore, A O’Connor (captain), I Henderson, C Ross, J Murphy, N Timoney;
Replacements (16-23): J Andrew, A Warwick, T O'Toole, K Treadwell, S Reidy, D Shanahan, J Hume, R Lyttle.