Ulster’s injury list in the early stages of the season has restricted their scope for rotation in the opening rounds of the United Rugby Championship, during which they’ve recorded three bonus-point wins. But five of the 14 players who were ruled out of the wins over Benetton and Zebre are back in the mix for Friday’s game against the Lions at the Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm).
Kieran Treadwell, Rob Lyttle, Eric O'Sullivan, Robert Baloucoune and David O'Connor have all now resumed full team training following their recent respective periods of unavailability, while Marty Moore suffered a concussion in training last week, and is currently following the return to play protocols.
With John Cooney (hamstring) still sidelined, it seems likely that the new crowd favourite with the Ulster supporters, Nathan Doak, will make this third successive start after scoring three tries and 31 points in his two and a half games to date.
Next Friday's game, which will be televised by BBC Northern Ireland, RTÉ and Premier Sports, provides Ulster with their first taste of South African opposition and Ulster defence coach Jared Payne is not surprised that the sides from the southern hemisphere have upped their game.
“I think they’re getting better, aren’t they? We’ve seen that across the board. They’ve probably got over their travel; there is a bit of travel to get up here. They’ve come together pretty tight as individual teams and started to play some good rugby.
“But it’s going to be nowhere near an easy victory for us. This is going to be a very tough game. They’ve got big boys in the forwards and they’ve got some dangerous backs, and they’re getting better every week.
“We saw against Glasgow, who are a decent team, they gave them a very good run for their money. So they’re a good challenge for us.”
It’s remarkable to think that Payne has now been a decade with Ulster, but following his initial arrival in the province in 2011, he had to endure a difficult, injury-affected first two seasons, not to mention being forced to retire prematurely after suffering concussion when playing with the British & Irish Lions before becoming their defence coach.
Hence he had palpable sympathy for Munster’s Springbok lock RG Snyman after suffering a re-rupture of his cruciate ligament, venturing that “support, both physically and mentally” will be key for the 26-year-old.
“It’s going to be a tough slog for the poor guy. He’s come to a different country and one is bad enough but two you just feel for the poor guy. I’m sure Munster are very good, they’ll get around him and they’ll support him, and put in place what is needed to get him back on the pitch, because that’s where we all want to see him. He’s a world-class player, so you want to see those kind of guys playing rugby. Support is the big thing.”