RORY Best will pull on the Ulster shirt for the first time since the Heineken Cup final when he makes his expected first appearance of the new RaboDirect PRO12 season against Connacht at Ravenhill tomorrow night (7.05).
The international hooker has not played any rugby since mid-June when he played against New Zealand on the Irish tour.
He suffered a leg injury which took longer than expected to fully recover but his inclusion in the provisional 25-man squad for the PRO12 match is a welcome boost for him and the Province.
It is likely Best will return via the bench which has been the policy for most of the players returning from injury of the Irish players management programme.
Tommy Bowe did go straight into the Ulster side on his return last week, scoring two of the seven tries in the 48-19 rout over Cardiff at the Arms Park.
Ulster were further boosted with good news on the injury front with the return of three other players, crucially as the Heineken Cup opening pool games are looming large on the horizon.
Talismanic back row, Stephen Ferris, who was rested last week as Ulster managed a minor shoulder issue, was also named in the provisional panel yesterday.
Skipper, Johann Muller, is also included having been rested last week as a precaution having picked up a bang in training at the eleventh hour.
The front row is further boosted with the inclusion of Declan Fitzpatrick, who had twisted a knee and was withdrawn from the Munster game three weeks ago.
Although the focus for the side is the visit of Connacht this week and a big Irish derby clash in the league, Ulster are now close to full strength in terms of available selection and that will be crucial as they also look ahead to the Heineken Cup matches against Castres (Ravenhill, October 5) and Glasgow (Scotstoun, October 12).
The only player who has not had game time this season is summer signing, Roger Wilson. The No 8 suffered a serious hamstring injury in his last game with Northampton Saints shortly after agreeing a return move to his former club.
While Ulster Rugby have said Wilson is making progress, it may be too late for him to be available for the first round of games in Europe.
Tomorrow’s game is being billed as a huge clash between the two Provinces.
Ulster currently leading the PRO12 and Connacht travelling to Ravenhill on the back of a massive bonus-point home 34-6 win against reigning European champions, Leinster.
Almost 8,000 tickets have been sold for the game, but there is still good availability in all parts of the ground. Please call the Ravenhill Ticket Office on 02890493222 (option 2) or visit www.ulsterrugby.com to buy tickets.
Meanwhile, the match is certain to be an emotional occasion as Ulster play their first home game since the tragic death of team mate, Nevin Spence, his father Noel and brother Graham in a farming accident on September 15.
Ulster have already embroidered the initials ‘NS’ underneath the Ulster Rugby crest on their jerseys and it is understood another special tribute will be paid tomorrow night to the 22-year-old before the game and at half-time.
Two of his team mates, who now play for Connacht, Willie Faloon and Mark McCrea, were among thousands of mourners at the funeral.
Provisional Ulster squad - Forwards: Rob Herring, Rory Best, Declan Fitzpatrick, John Afoa, Tom Court, Callum Black, Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy, Lewis Stevenson, Stephen Ferris, Mike McComish, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Nick Williams. Backs: Paul Marshall, Michael Heaney, Niall O’Connor, Paddy Jackson, Paddy Wallace, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy, Jared Payne.