Ulster have been given a massive boost with the news that club captain Rory Best could return from injury sooner than expected.
The Ireland hooker looked likely to miss the entire 2009/10 season after undergoing neck surgery last year but he could now be back in action as early as March.
Best, who was his country’s second-choice hooker during Ireland’s first Grand Slam triumph in 61 years, is one of Ulster’s most experienced and influential players, having made 66 Magners League appearances since the 2004/05 campaign.
The 27-year-old’s absence was a big blow to new head coach Brian McLaughlin’s plans at the beginning of the current campaign and the news that he could yet play a part this season will no doubt be greeted with plenty of smiles at Ravenhill.
"If I can continue to progress then maybe a return after the Six Nations is a strong possibility," Best told the Belfast News Letter.
"I am delighted now to really see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Best has already returned to light training earlier than expected. He has joined his Ulster team-mates in light contact sessions and, although scrummaging remains an untried test, he is more than happy with the pace at which his recovery is progressing.
"It felt good – a lot of goals had already been achieved previously and moving on to the next one is always a boost," added Best.
"I think getting onto the pitch with the lads again was the best goal of the lot so far.
"The wee bit of contact was good, I took some hits. I got suited up in the vest, and although there were some concerns from the coaching team, the medical team said it had to be done at some point.
"It was only five or ten minutes, but it was good to take hits full on, boys running at you trying to knock you over, which is great."
If Best does meet his goal of being ready for a return to action in March, he could feature in the away games at the Scarlets and Blues on March 5 and March 26 respectively.
And with Ulster pushing hard for a Magners League play-off spot, the popular skipper could find himself helping his team repeat their 2006 championship-winning campaign when the semi-finals and final take place on the first and second weekends in May.