Ireland’s Six Nations title defence has received a major mid-campaign boost with the return to club action on Friday night of Ulster’s Iain Henderson.

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Joe Schmidt was forced to start the unheralded Quinn Roux in last Saturday’s round two win over Scotland.

The South African had failed to make the cut in January 16 when Schmidt announced a 38-strong squad for the tournament that included five locks.

However, Champions Cup injuries to Henderson and Tadhg Beirne, along with Devin Toner’s need for ankle surgery following the opening round loss to England, catapulted Roux into the frame for a first ever Six Nations start at the age of 28.

Roux wasn’t found wanting in helping Ireland see off the Scots in a low-frills encounter at Murrayfield, but the potential return of the higher quality Henderson in time for Ireland’s trip to face Italy on February 24 will be seen as a hugely encouraging development for Schmidt.

Henderson, the 2017 British & Irish Lion, had missed the start of the 2019 Six Nations due to a finger injury sustained during Ulster’s narrow win at Leicester which secured his team qualification for the Champions Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 2014.

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The second row had only just returned from winter thumb surgery when he sustained his latest injury. However, his reputation as a quick healer has again proven to be true with his inclusion by Dan McFarland in the Ulster side to to take on Ospreys at Bridgend in Friday night.

Henderson started three of Ireland’s matches last term en route a rare Grand Slam success and with Toner now sidelined for the remainder of the latest Six Nations, the soon-to-be 27-year-old now had the opportunity to slot back in alongside James Ryan provided he comes through his PRO14 comeback in Wales unscathed.

John Cooney, capped off the bench on recent weeks as sub for Conor Murray, will also start for Ulster at scrum-half.

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