ULSTER hooker Rory Best will begin his return to rugby by lining out for Banbridge on Saturday.
The Poyntzpass man has been working towards a return to action since breaking his neck in May.
His last action came just before that when he captained Ireland's tour of North America.
Progress had gone well during Best's and it had been thought he would be making a return to action next month or in March.
However, the fact he is likely to get 40 minutes with Bann this weekend, could well signal an early return to the big stage.
They are due to face Barnhall in All Ireland League Division Three at Rifle Park (2.30pm start). It will be the first time he has featured for the locals since 2002 when he played against Richmond in the same competition.
Best was also named in the preliminary 44-man Irish squad for the Six Nations Championship this week - he could still feature in the defence which starts against Italy on February 6.
Only last week Banbridge First Team Manager Roy Stevenson said that the encouraging news on Rory's recovery from major surgery was a great boost for Ulster and Irish rugby. "I'm not altogether surprised at the progress that Rory has made since the operation in view of his attitude, commitment and determination," Stevenson commented at the weekend.
"I know he has been working very hard on his rehabilitation and I'm sure the Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin will be keen to get his captain back into action as quickly as possible.
"Of course, if the Ulster or Irish team management would like to ease him back into competitive rugby with a game or part-game at club level, I'm sure we could find him a place in our AIL squad," added Stevenson with a smile.
"We'd be only too glad to see him back in Bann colours and it might speed his return to the professional game. I'm sure Rory will be guided on all that by his national and provincial coaches."
There will be full coverage of Best's return to action in next week's Leader.