Ulster Head Coach, Mark Anscombe, has named an extended 27 man squad ahead of the Heineken Cup Pool 4 match against Castres Olympique at Ravenhill on Friday night (kick off 8:00pm).
Scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar is included for the first time this season having returned to Ulster following his time playing for South Africa in the Rugby Championship.
Lock Neil McComb and hooker Nigel Brady also return to the panel.
Number 8, Nick Williams, is included in the squad despite having suffered a rib injury in the 25 points to nil win over Connacht. He is responding well to treatment and a decision on his fitness will be made later in the week.
Prop Declan Fitzpatrick aggravated a medial ligament injury in training last week and remains unavailable for selection.
Australian-born flanker, Sean Doyle, suffered a broken leg playing for Dungannon on Saturday and will be out for up to six weeks.
FORWARDS (16): Rob Herring, Rory Best, Nigel Brady, Neil McComb, John Afoa, Tom Court, Adam Macklin, Callum Black, Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy, Lewis Stevenson, Stephen Ferris, Mike McComish, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.
BACKS (11): Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall, Michael Heaney, Paddy Jackson, Paddy Wallace, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy, Jared Payne.
Williams has become increasingly important to Ulster as the days have ticked past since Friday. With Diack and Wilson still out it leaves only Henry and Henderson with any experience at 8. Henry would now be considered irreplaceable at 7 and with no out and out replacements available ( Doyle broke his leg at the weekend – ironically the weekend his mum and dad decide to arrived from Austrailia – and Birch didn’t make the squad) I would be loathed to move Henry from this specialist position.
However, Henderson hasn’t played 8 since leaving school so I think it would be a step too far to ask the talented youngster to make the transition in such an important game. If Williams does not recover I can see them slotting McComish in at 7 with Henry bumping round one. Not ideal, but I don’t think we’ll have too much to worry about up front either way as any combination should be too good for the overrated French outfit.
The return of Pienaar should add the final touch to Ulster’s already promising season. Having played his last couple of matches in roughly the same time zone he should be able to walk straight back into the team. Forget about the PR that Anscombe won’t be playing players on reputation – he will be told to get Pienaar into the starting XV.
So I expect pretty much the same side that started against Connacht except that Pienaar will start and Paul Marshall will replace Heaney on the bench. If Williams doesn’t make it then McComish to start with Henderson coming on to the bench.