Ulster v Zebre, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm – Live on TG4, BBC 2 & Premier Sports 1
His potential availability having been flagged due to being involved in Ireland’s November camp, Iain Henderson will finally see some action on Friday evening when Ulster return from the break to host bottom team Zebre.
The 30-year-old has been out of commission since returning home early from last summer’s Ireland tour to New Zealand and last played a game when Ulster narrowly lost last June’s URC semi-final at the Stormers.
Since flying back from New Zealand before the Ireland tour had even got up and running, Henderson has undergone knee and hand procedures and would have been back for Ulster before now but for an unspecified setback.
The Ireland lock is on the bench for Friday night’s match and getting some game time into the club skipper’s legs will be a priority for Dan McFarland ahead of the now season-defining 10-match block facing the province, encompassing both the league and Europe, while Andy Farrell will also be an interested onlooker with a view to potentially involving Henderson in the Six Nations and beyond.
With most Ireland squad members rested, only Henderson and the starting Jacob Stockdale are included from those who were in national camp, McFarland has still managed to select a strong-looking side for Ulster’s first game since the November Test break when the northern province signed off with a narrow and rare victory over Munster at Thomond Park.
Several lesser-known players who toured with Emerging Ireland have been given the nod with Jake Flannery being the most notable inclusion as he makes his debut at outhalf, while Callum Reid and Cormac Izuchukwu are also in the starting side for the first time in this campaign.
As was the case against Munster, Stewart Moore is selected at fullback and Tom Stewart starts at hooker with Ethan McIlroy switching wings to accommodate Stockdale.
The hugely experienced Duane Vermeulen leads Ulster for the first time and will have plenty of backup from Marty Moore, Luke Marshall, James Hume, Sam Carter, Stockdale and, of course, Henderson when he is introduced.
Zebre, who have lost all seven games played, have a sprinkling of Italy squad members back in their squad, though this is unlikely to prevent what is widely expected to be another victory for Ulster with the bonus-point tagged on.
ULSTER: S Moore; E McIlroy, J Hume, L Marshall, J Stockdale; J Flannery, N Doak; C Reid, T Stewart, M Moore; C Izuchukwu, S Carter; Matty Rea, Marcus Rea, D Vermeulen (capt).
Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, J Toomaga-Allen, I Henderson, D McCann, M McDonald, A Curtis, B Moxham.
ZEBRE PARMA: L Pani; J Trulla, R Kriel, E Lucchin (capt), S Gesi; G Prisciantelli, C Cook; J Pitinari, J du Toit, M Nocera; J Uys, A Zambonin; G Volpi, G Ferrari, M Kvesic.
Replacements: M Manfredi, D Rimpelli, R Genovese, L Krumov, I Bianchi, R Jelic, J Caputo, E Cronjé
Referee: AJ Jacobs (SARU).