Ulster were boosted with the return of Chris Henry, Declan Fitzpatrick and Iain Henderson to the squad this week ahead of Friday night’s RaboDirect Pro12 match against Zebre at Ravenhill.
Henry and Fitzpatrick both came off the bench for the games against Wales and England in the Six Nations over the past fortnight.
In spite of the growing list of injuries in the Irish squad, particularly in the front and back rows, all three players are expected to get game time against the Italians.
John Afoa is the other notable inclusion in the provisional squad named on Tuesday. He was on a short break in New Zealand during the PRO12 recess and returned to Belfast on Sunday.
Fitzpatrick is expected to start in the front row at tighthead with Afoa also getting game time as Ulster aim to get back on track on the PRO12 after they had their lead clipped back from 11 to seven points following a disappointing performance which resulted in a 16-12 loss to Ospreys – Ulster’s first defeat at Ravenhill in this season’s campaign.
The losing bonus point proved critical as second placed Glasgow picked up five match points on their travels to Italy where they put Ulster’s opponents this week, Zebre to the sword.
Apart from the three Irish returnees and Afoa there were no other changes in the provisional set of forwards, although it was a case of wait and see for loosehead prop, Tom Court.
He may be called to the Irish training camp on Wednesday in light of the citing complaint against prop Cian Healy.
In the backs the notable change is the absence of Paul Marshall’s name with Michael Heaney included. That indicates the injury to starting scrumhalf last week, Ruan Pienaar, is not as serious as had first been thought.
He suffered a ‘stinger’ injury to the shoulder but a scan yesterday was returned clear.
Ulster defence coach, Jonny Bell, said a rotation system was being employed by the management and it gave some players an opportunity this week to be involved in the game with Zebre.
Although Paddy Wallace was named in the provisional panel, he was still rated ’50-50’ having suffered a lower leg injury against the Welsh side last week.
Ulster Rugby said the injury was not expected to be a long term one.
Luke Marshall is expected to start in the 12 shirt with Darren Cave joining him in the midfield.
Paddy Jackson is also included, although an ankle injury sustained while playing with the Irish Wolfhounds is being monitored.
With Irish outhalf, Jonny Sexton, suffering an injury against England, Jackson would be in the mix to be called into the senior national squad and a return to playing this week would be ideal for him.
ULSTER PROVISIONAL PANEL:
Forwards: Neil McComb, Callum Black, John Afoa, Niall Annett, Robbie Diack, Lewis Stevenson, Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry, Johann Muller, Mike McComish, Declan Fitzpatrick, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring.
Backs: Paddy Wallace, Michael Allen, Ruan Pienaar, Ricky Andrew, Luke Marshall, Michael Heaney, Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble, Chris Cochrane, Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding.