RORY BEST looks set to give Joe Schmidt a real boost ahead of his Six Nations squad selection by returning to action for Ulster against Montpellier this Friday.
Both the Ireland hooker and provincial captain Johann Muller could make the bench at least for Mark Anscombe's side, as they look to continue their unbeaten Heineken Cup run, but Tommy Bowe is still at least another week away from returning.
Best broke his arm during the first-half of November's defeat to New Zealand, but the first-choice No 2 should now have at least two games under his belt before the Championship kicks off against Scotland at Lansdowne Road.
His return will bolster the 2012 European finalists who got back to winning ways on Friday night with a 29-19 win over Munster as they welcomed Ireland pair Chris Henry and Iain Henderson back from injury.
While Munster returned home with a growing list of injury concerns, the hosts came through Friday's game unscathed and now face Fabien Galthie's side who are out of Europe and sixth in the Top 14 after losing to Brive at the weekend. As the tournament's only unbeaten side, Ulster will be hoping for maximum points ahead of their trip to Welford Road for their final pool game against Leicester Tigers on Saturday week.
"The one thing you need going to Europe is to go with confidence," Anscombe said. "If we'd gotten turned over on Friday, it would have an effect.
"We have our destiny in our hands, we're at a comfortable spot in the table, we know what we need to do in our last two games. We've a job on our hands with Montpellier here and if we do the job there we're in a good spot."
Anscombe handed the kicking duties to Ruan Pienaar on Friday night, with the Springbok rewarding him with an almost faultless performance from the tee. It meant disappointment for Paddy Jackson who was denied the chance to make his Six Nations claim from placed balls, even if the youngster did impress with ball in hand.
"It's a tough call and I really felt for Jacko because he has been kicking well and he is a player who is going to be doing a lot of kicking for Ulster in the future," the New Zealander said.
"The thing that leads us to Ruan is that ability to kick that 55-plus metre kick."
Henry returned from the hamstring injury he suffered against Samoa in November and gave a performance that is likely to see him picked as starting openside for Ireland in less than a month's time.
He just about edged his straight shoot-out with Tommy O'Donnell, but given his prior involvement, experience and leadership skills, a fit Henry looks the more likely inclusion.
"We bounced back, there was a lot of pressure on the team," Henry said.
"It took me a while to get into it, you forget when you're away for a while how hard people try and smack you at those rucks and mauls. I was happy with a few turnovers, but there is still plenty more in me.
"I'm delighted to have gotten some good game time under my belt, it is a massive part of the season ahead of us, and to put myself in the mix and get back means I'm happy enough."