Ulster were dealt a bad blow on Thursday when captain, Johann Muller was ruled out on the eve of the crunch derby RaboDirect PRO12 clash against league leaders, Munster at Ravenhill (7.05pm)
The influential South African lock suffered a leg injury in training.
Ulster Rugby were vague in their statement regarding Muller, but it is obviously a major concern looking ahead to two crunch season-defining matches in the Heienken Cup against Montpellier and Leicester Tigers.
Muller, who was rested for last week’s disappointing 19-6 defeat away to Leinster, was due to start in the second row tonight, and on New Year’s Eve he had attended the weekly press conference obviously excited about playing again – particuarly as he had only just recently returned from a non-associated injury.
“We have a massive Irish derby game this week at home and then we are back at Ravenhill again for an even bigger match in the Heineken Cup against Montpellier.
“It is an exciting time and everyone in the squad wants to be involved in these games in the coming weeks,” added Muller.
While Muller’s leg injury was an unexpected blow in training, there was good news for the club with the return from injury of Chris Henry, Iain Henderson and Nick Williams following injury.
Irish international duo Henry and Henderson will start against Munster in the back and second row respectively.
They were two of six changes to the side which lost in Dublin last week.
John Afoa returns from his traditional festive break back home in New Zealand to start in the front row and Irish international Tom Court also starts.
The other two changes come in the backline, with Ruan Pienaar and Jared Payne back in the starting XV at scrumhalf and fullback respectively, having played off the bench last week.
Williams is named on bench containing five forward replacements and only two backs - a strong indicator those returing from injury will have limited time.
League leaders Munster have also named a strong side which includes Irish internationals Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony, the latter back to captaining the side.
Ulster were badly stung in Dublin last week with a lethagric display in the defeat to Leinster and head coach, Mark Anscombe, expects a reaction tonight.
“The performance was disappointing last week and if playing Munster does not get us excited, well nothing will.
“This is the start of a crucial three weeks in our season - three weeks which will define our season.”