Ian Nagle’s return from injury could not be more timely for Ulster given their scarcity of experienced locks.
The on-loan signing from Leinster has returned to full fitness and is almost certainly likely to get his first start for Ulster in the Irish derby against Munster at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night.
Ulster were dealt a huge bodyblow on Monday when British Lion and Irish international Iain Henderson was ruled out for up to three months having undergone surgery on a thumb issue.
Adding to head coach Dan McFarland’s woes was Matty Rea’s fractured thumb sustained while playing for clubside Ballymena in the All Ireland League.
He too underwent surgery on Monday and is set to be out for up to 10 weeks.
With Alan O’Connor still on the injury list, it leaves McFarland with a serious absence of experienced second rows available ahead of three crunch Irish derbies in the Guinness PRO14.
After Munster, Ulster are on the road back to back against Connacht and Leinster.
Nagle has made two appearances for Ulster off the bench in the most recent PRO14 games against Scarlets and Cardiff Blues.
He missed the back to back European Champions Cup victories over Scarlets due to an injury concern, but McFarland confirmed yesterday the lock would be available for selection.
He is almost certain - if fit - to start alongside Kieran Treadwell, who has had two impressive outings against the Scarlets in Europe.
Academy player Matty Dalton, who has also just returned from injury and played in the All Ireland League at the weekend, would be a likely call to the bench.
Confirming O’Connor would “unlikely be available for two or three weeks” McFarland added: “Ian (Nagle) we would hope to have available this weekend.
The retirements of Pete Browne and Jean Deysel earlier this season had left Ulster light in the second row department.
The latest double injury blow - Henderson being a massive loss given there are two huge European Champions Cup Pool Four games to come next month - has left the Province on the brink of a crisis in the lock area.
“It is unfortunately the nature of things,” said McFarland.
“These things happen and they often happen in little groups.”
In terms of the next fortnight and player welfare, McFarland said: “There is the normal procedures as there would be with all the Provinces there.
“ The nationally managed guys will have one or two games off over that period, so we will decide how we a lot our resources accordingly.
“There will be plenty of opportunity for young guys over this period.
“We will certainly be competitive.”
Having positioned themselves strongly in Pool Four of the Heineken Cup after picking up a maximum 10 points in the back-to-back victories over Scarlets, Ulster will want to maintain the momentum as they head into the festive period.
“That’s very important (to keep the momentum). Obviously we’ve had two good results there’ll be things we’ll have to work on this week but our attention turns to our friends and neighbours and we’re looking forward to welcoming them here, come Friday night.
“There is definitely a sense, we spoke about it this morning, that you win together but you also lose together.
“It hurt us when we were down there in Thomond Park. That was a difficult night. There were a few young fellas playing there, who didn’t get the best experience of representing their province.
“We want to put out a performance this Friday night that demonstrates what an interprovincial game really means to us.