Ulster's Iain Henderson starts in crucial Leicester clash after astounding injury return
Iain Henderson will make his return from injury SEVEN weeks ahead of schedule when his Ulster team travel to Leicester tomorrow afternoon.
The international lock had been set to remain sidelined for up to 12 weeks after undergoing surgery on a thumb injury in mid-December.
However, he has been named in the line-up for Saturday's clash at Welford Road, where he will make his 100th appearance for the province as the only change to the starting team that beat Racing 92 last weekend.
John Cooney has been named on the bench as he returns from a back injury that caused his late withdrawal for the win over Racing but Billy Burns has been cleared to start after a scan on a calf injury.
Speculation surrounding an early return mounted when he was surprisingly included in Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad for the first two Six Nations fixtures, to be played on the first two weekends in February.
Even then, few suspected he would be fit to start at Welford Road, where Ulster are looking to rubber-stamp their place in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals.
The news marks a huge boost not only for the province, but also for Ireland, who will hope to have Henderson fit and on form for the Six Nations campaign as they look to become the first side to win back-to-back Grand Slam crowns in the Six Nations era.
Henderson slots straight into Ulster's second row alongside Kieran Treadwell while his international team-mate Rory Best will captain the side from hooker, joined by Abbey Insurance Ulster Academy prop Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore in the front row. Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee are once again named as the loose forwards.
Behind the pack, David Shanahan, who was a late call-up to the starting team last week, retains his place at scrum-half, with Billy Burns at fly-half. Stuart McCloskey and Will Addison are also retained in the midfield.
Jacob Stockdale and Academy prospect Robert Baloucoune, who jointly contributed Ulster’s three tries last week, continue on the wings, with Louis Ludik completing the back three.
On the bench, Rob Herring, Andy Warwick and Ross Kane will cover the front row, with Alan O’Connor and Nick Timoney named as the additional forward options. John Cooney, Michael Lowry and Darren Cave are selected as the backline reinforcements.
Ulster team to play Leicester Tigers
(15-9): L Ludik; R Baloucoune, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, D Shanahan; (1-8): E O’Sullivan, R Best (captain), M Moore, I Henderson, K Treadwell, S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee;
Replacements (16-23): R Herring, A Warwick, R Kane, A O’Connor, N Timoney, J Cooney, M Lowry, D Cave.