Ulster's Les Kiss hoping to call on Jared Payne and Chris Henry for crunch Ospreys clash
Ulster are expected to reveal today whether influential duo Jared Payne and Chris Henry will be fit to face Ospreys in Saturday's make-or-break PRO12 contest at Liberty Stadium (3pm kick-off).
The province travel to Swansea sitting fifth in the league, but would leapfrog their hosts into the fourth and final play-off spot should they beat the Welsh region.
Payne, who was last week named a British and Irish Lion for the first time, missed out against Munster two weekends ago with an ankle injury but Director of Rugby Les Kiss had been optimistic he could make his return in the crucial showdown.
Whether it be at full-back or centre, the 31-year-old's presence this weekend would be an undoubted boost given the side's questionable backline defence in recent games, even if the native Kiwi has managed just 10 games in an Ulster jersey this season thanks to his various injuries and international commitments.
Henry himself began the campaign with a shoulder problem but, given the long-term absence of Marcell Coetzee, has been a key figure in the Ulster back-row.
The openside injured a calf against Munster, a problem that required a scan last week, and if unavailable would again leave Kiss looking light in the loose forward department.
One man sure to miss out on the weekend's game is former Osprey Tommy Bowe, who has been fit to make a return to Liberty Stadium on just one occasion since coming back from Wales to his native province in 2012.
With the latest injury in his luckless run coming courtesy of a broken ankle picked up on Ireland duty in the Six Nations - the winger had a plate and five screws inserted in the joint - Bowe's season is already over.
The Monaghan man, who recently became a father for the first time, fully expects to be ready for the 2017-18 pre-season.
"Oh yes, I'll be ready for that," he said. "It's coming on well and better than I'd hoped.
"It's nice to be off the crutches but it's going to take a little bit of time to get back out there. But a baby girl is a nice distraction."
While Ulster's recent form has been patchy having failed to win a game since overcoming Newport at the end of last month, Ospreys' slide has been even more alarming.
Steve Tandy's side won 13 games in a row in all competitions either side of Christmas and looked sure of a play-off spot but they have dropped five of the last seven since, including four on the bounce.
Despite the Welsh side's humbling at the hands of local rivals Cardiff when they last took the field, Ulster lock Franco van der Merwe still expects an almighty challenge when visiting the four-time league champions.
"I still think they're a quality side that can produce a brilliant game," said the South African, who will join Cardiff this summer.
"They were a bit unfortunate in some of the games, which were very close. I think having home advantage and the fact that they are also playing for a spot in the play-offs will make them very tough opponents.
"I think every year since I've been here, it's come down to the last couple of games of the season and, especially this year, it's very tight at the top. It's going to be tough every single game for us."
While Van der Merwe was not part of the side that lost to Munster in Thomond Park, he believes there has been a notable response in training to a loss where Ulster saw much of the ball but made far too many mistakes in possession.
"Looking at the Munster game, I think the guys played really well," the 34-year-old said. "A lot of times we dominated, we kept the ball really well and just one or two errors led to some frustration.
"If you look back at some of the games earlier in the season it was similar - small moments can be costly at the end of the game.
"In saying that, I think there were a lot of positives. I wasn't involved in the game but I could see the passion the guys were playing with, I could see the determination and the commitment.
"We've had some very good sessions after the last match and you can see the guys are focused.
"We're definitely looking forward to the last two matches, and hopefully the play-offs. I truly believe that we can do it."
Meanwhile, it does not appear that Van der Merwe will be taking on Alun Wyn Jones.
The man named last week as a Lion for the third time has been nursing an injured shoulder but returned to training yesterday.
While it seems likely he will appear a week later against the Scarlets, and in any potential play-off, Ospreys are adopting a wait and see approach for this week.
"He's ticking along quite nicely," said forwards coach Chris Gibbes, the brother of Jono Gibbes, who will be Ulster's head coach next year. "He's done a few bits and pieces at training today within the forwards unit session. It was nothing too strenuous, but every session he does we will monitor.
"We have to see how he recovers and responds to the bits he's done. I can't answer if he'll be ready for our game with Ulster.
"He's done a little bit of contact lifting, little bits and pieces, but there's been no contact as yet.
"If we had to pick the team today it would be unlikely."