Ulster head coach Brian McLaughlin has named a 31-man squad for the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Northampton Saints at stadium:mk on Sunday (kick-off 2pm).
Out-half Ian Humphreys and prop BJ Botha came through their return game against the Scarlets unscathed last weekend and have been pencilled in for Ulster’s first European quarter-final since 1999.
Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris is the only player unavailable to the province as he is still suffering with a knee problem.
If Brian McLaughlin’s men manage to beat Northampton on Sunday, they will face either Perpignon or Toulon in a semi-final in Dublin.
Ulster come into the game on the back of six straight Magners League wins, while Northampton have won their previous three matches.
The province’s matchday squad will be confirmed by head coach McLaughlin on Friday.
Ulster and Northampton have met just twice before in the Heineken Cup, during the pool stages of the 2002/03 campaign with one home win apiece.
Of the current set-ups, there are plenty of connections between the playing and coaching personnel.
Former Ulster hooker Paul Shields is Northampton’s team manager and Saints number 8 Roger Wilson was a regular starter during his time at Ravenhill.
Another ex-Ulster hooker and assistant coach, Allen Clarke, who is now the IRFU’s High Performance Manager, played for Northampton as did Jonny Bell, the Elite Player Development Officer with Ulster Rugby.
Bell spent three years at Northampton before returning to Belfast in 1998 and going on to produce a man-of-the-match display in Ulster’s 1999 European Cup final win over Colomiers at Lansdowne Road.
Previewing Sunday’s showdown in Milton Keynes, Bell said: “The form Northampton showed during the Heineken Cup pool stages was very, very good and, even though they had a bit of a slump during the Six Nations, now they have got their quality players back they have become a different animal.”
“It is going to be a massive task for us to go there and win and we know we will travel as massive underdogs. But reaching the quarter-finals has been a big, big step for us, and we can’t just settle for that.
“We know that any of the other teams in the last-eight would have been happy to have drawn us, so we have got to go to Milton Keynes and get a good performance out of our side. If we play very, very well I’m confident that we stand a good chance of beating them.
“If we were having to go to France and win it might be different. But stadium:mk is a pretty neutral venue and everything is there for us to play for.
“At this stage of the season in the past we have been involved in dead rubber matches, but this year we are in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and are involved in the business end of the Magners League campaign.
“We now have players in key positions who are bringing out the best in others around them, and as a team we’re improving all the time.”
ULSTER Squad (v Northampton Saints) – Backs (13): Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys, Niall O’Connor, Ian Whitten, Nevin Spence, Paddy Wallace, Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble, Simon Danielli, Craig Gilroy, Jamie Smith, Adam D’Arcy.
Forwards (18): Jerry Cronin, Declan Fitzpatrick, Tom Court, BJ Botha, Paddy McAllister, Bryan Young, Rory Best, Nigel Brady, Andi Kyriacou, Ryan Caldwell, Dan Tuohy, Johann Muller, Tim Barker, Pedrie Wannenburg, Thomas Anderson, Willie Faloon, Chris Henry, Robbie Diack.