Darren Cave and Nick Williams are available for selection for Ulster's pivotal Champions Cup clash with Oyonnax at the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday as the Irish province chase a place in knockout stage of the tournament.
However, the news appears less positive for Ireland flanker Chris Henry, who still hasn't quite fully shaken off a shoulder issue, Louis Ludik (leg) and prop Wiehahn Herbst, the latter helped from the pitch after damaging a knee in last weekend's defeat to Saracens.
Cave hasn't played since suffering a shoulder injury in early December but could return to Ulster's midfield, particularly if there are national player management welfare issues relating to game time. Ulster's assistant coach Neil Doak admitted some players had endured a heavy workload in recent times and depending on availability there could be one or two changes.
It is a position that the province faced, coincidentally against Oyonnax, a fortnight ago in France. On that occasion, Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson and Nick Williams were summed to successfully rescue Ulster after trailing 23-0 at the interval. Williams suffered a concussion in that game, missing the Saracens match, but has successfully completed the return-to-play protocols.
A silver lining in Ulster's defeat in London last Saturday was the performance of Jared Payne at fullback, not only for his delightfully weighted grubber-kick that pre-empted a try for Luke Marshall but in the general excellence of his play in a first game back since foot surgery during the World Cup.
He suffered no ill effects on his return. “I got through 80 minutes better than I expected and everything went okay . . .
“There were a few other issues I had coming back in the rehab but it is as good as gold now. It was a disappointing result but it is always good to get out on the rugby field when you have been off it for so long.”
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will have noted Payne's performance at fullback rather than the centre position he has occupied in the green jersey. The latter confirmed that there had been no dialogue on his role in the upcoming Six Nations Championship and that he'll be content for now to see his name listed in the extended national squad at lunchtime today.
“No, none whatsoever, Joe [Schmidt] keeps his distance. I’ll worry about that in the next week or two if I get picked [for the Irish squad] and go from there. I’m not too worried where I play . . .”
Ulster need a four-try, bonus-point victory, along with some other results to go their way to progress through to the quarterfinals of the Champions Cup. While accepting that Saracens taught them a thing or two, Payne is adamant the province must learn to progress.
“We can take a few lessons out of the weekend that’s for sure. We have to take them on board. We have been talking about it for years now and haven’t really taken it on board I guess because our performances haven’t improved in the big games . . .”
The priority this weekend is to win and for Payne not apologise for being specific about the primary goal. “We need five points to have a chance of qualifying . . . If we can’t deal with that sort of pressure then we don’t deserve to be in the quarters.
“We have pretty good structures put in place in the team and it is just about doing the basics very well, sticking to those structures and hopefully being pretty clinical and getting a few tries.”