IRISH rugby received a considerable boost yesterday when Marcus Horan was included in Munster's squad for Friday night's vital Heineken Cup meeting with Northampton at Thomond Park.
The 66-times capped loose-head prop has been out of action for the province since the pool game against Treviso last October, but has recovered successfully from a minor heart condition and played for Shannon in their AIB League win over Dolphin last weekend.
Temporary signing Wian Du Preez has been performing well for Munster in Horan's absence and is likely to start against the Saints, but the Shannon man could make the match-day squad, particularly as Heineken Cup rules allow an extra prop to be named on the bench.
It is a timely return for Ireland coach Declan Kidney also, who included Horan in his 44-man Six Nations squad yesterday ahead of their opener against Italy at Croke Park on February 6.
Munster coach Tony McGahan welcomed the 32-year-old back into the squad yesterday.
"Marcus has worked really hard to get back into the squad. He's been training for the last three weeks and played 80 minutes on Saturday and has ticked all the boxes," said McGahan.
"He was delighted to get the run. He's building up for the last three weeks and was very happy after 80 minutes on Saturday. He's in the mix for Friday night -- it's a long stretch to put him in and Wian and John (Hayes) have done very well. We'll see."
The Munster scrum has come under pressure at times this season -- notably in the a recent Magners League defeat to Ulster in Ravenhill -- but McGahan believes the scrum has come on and is capable of providing a solid base for the backline, praising the contribution of South African Du Preez, who returns to the Cheetahs after this weekend.
"We've always been a target. It's an important facet of the game. If you don't have a good scrum, you know how difficult it is to get a good platform there.
"We needed time as a unit and a team there. We progressed in that area. It really doesn't matter what anyone says or writes about it. We're realistic about where we are, you can't reach any level if you have a huge deficiency in any area. We mightn't have the best, but we can certainly hold our own.
"Wian came in and fitted in as a person and as a player, he's been excellent. He's really added to the squad and has been a huge success for us. We were extremely lucky to get a player of his ability for the time we had.
"He'll be in training on Tuesday next week with them and then is straight into round one of Super 15.
"To get all aspects aligned, we're very fortunate."
Munster are two points ahead of Northampton at the top of Pool One and the Saints know that only a win will be good enough to earn them automatic qualification for the quarter-finals.
Northampton defeated Munster at Franklin's Gardens in their opening pool game and had an excellent 34-0 victory over Perpignan last Sunday at the same venue, with Jon Clarke's injury-time touchdown securing the bonus-point.
That victory extended Northampton's winning run in all competitions to 10 matches and they will travel to Limerick in confident mood, seeking to become only the second side after Leicester in 2007 to record a European victory in Thomond Park. McGahan is wary of the threat posed by the 2000 champions.
"They are the form team, their form this year has been excellent and they are able to play the game in many ways. They played for the 80 minutes (against Perpignan) and picked up bonus point with that last minute try. They'll come here confident in their ability and that's been the talk coming from their camp this week."
With the exception of injured No 8 Denis Leamy and hooker Jerry Flannery, who was not expected to be included as he continues his recovery from his Achilles injury, Munster have all their big names available and will look to continue on from their comprehensive 44-7 victory in Treviso last Saturday.
"It's a shoot-out to see who goes through to the quarter-final against English opponents in great form," said McGahan. "It's a great week to be apart of and a great game. These are the ones you need to win and we're looking forward to it."