Ulster's Lions shouldn't be rushed, says coach as province without FIVE big players for Scarlets clash
Ulster assistant coach Dwayne Peel has defended the policy that means the province will be taking on league champions Scarlets this weekend still without their British and Irish Lions.
While the Welsh region confirmed yesterday that they plan to have their own Lions trio of Leigh Halfpenny, Jon Davies and Ken Owens in their squad when they pitch up at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night (7.35pm kick-off), their hosts will again not have Rory Best, Jared Payne and Iain Henderson available.
It is not only in Wales where returning Lions have already been restored to playing squads, England's own representatives having featured as early as the first week of the Aviva Premiership.
But the IRFU's long-standing policy on player welfare means front-line players have their game minutes strictly managed over the course of a season with a view to avoiding burnout and maximising success on the international stage.
And Peel moved yesterday to clarify the province's position, adding that each player should be taken as an individual case.
"It is not something I control but obviously the guys need to get prepped and ready to play," said the former scrum-half who was a Test Lion himself in 2005.
"I think that you cannot rush them back too soon because you risk losing them at the end of the season or having that potential burnout towards the end of the season.
"It has to be individualised, it has to be right for the player first and foremost and every player has to be right to come back in. If he is not right mentally or physically it does not help the team in any way.
"If a player is fit and healthy, and mentally fit as well and fresh that is the biggest thing."
Highlighting the difference in Wales, where national dual contacts have only recently been brought in, Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac yesterday explained the thinking behind the returns of his own Lions.
"We brought some boys straight in and the others had two weeks off," he explained.
"And the boys who came straight in had two weeks off down the track and we swapped it around a bit.
"They've had a good break now and were introduced into training a few weeks back so it's not like they are coming back one day and then straight into the team."
If the test of welcoming the reigning champions who have won 21 of their last 23 domestic games wasn't enough, Ulster's Lions trio will not be the only ones missing in action.
Marcell Coetzee (below) and Charles Piutau will also be absent, although the hope is they will feature against Dragons next weekend. The province's marquee imports featured in the opening round of PRO14 action against the Cheetahs but have not been seen since, Coetzee dealing with a knee complaint while Piutau nurses a tight hamstring.
In his third game since being recruited to look after Ulster's attack, Friday's opposition will be a side hugely familiar to Peel. The man who won 76 caps for Wales grew up supporting Llanelli, before playing for the Scarlets for the first eight years of his pro career.
Indeed, former half-back partner Stephen Jones, who co-owns pubs and restaurants with Peel, will be in the opposing coach's box.
"I spent most of my career there and was a fan from being a kid but it is going to be a big, tough game for us," said Peel.
"No doubt they are the form team at the minute and have been for the last couple of months. They have started well again with two good wins.
"It's a big challenge for us but we're looking forward to it and to see where we are at really I suppose."