Chris Henry to make early Ulster return after heart surgery

Chris Henry in action against France in last year's Six Nations Championship
Chris Henry was forced to pull out of Ireland's game against South Africa in November after being taken ill on the morning of the game

Ireland flanker Chris Henry could play his first match on Friday since suffering a mini-stroke in November.

Henry, who underwent heart surgery, is among the replacements for Ulster's Pro12 game against Cardiff Blues at the Kingspan Stadium.

The 30-year-old was expected to return in mid-April but Ulster have confirmed he will be on bench on Friday night.

Henry was taken ill on the morning of Ireland's Test against South Africa where he was scheduled to play.

He later underwent heart surgery after a small hole was discovered in the organ.

"I am absolutely delighted that Chris will be involved in the match and his recovery gives everyone at Ulster Rugby a massive boost," said Ulster coach Neil Doak.

"He is a very popular member of the squad and he has worked extremely hard since his surgery to get back to full fitness.

"Wearing the Ulster jersey means a great deal to Chris and I know with what he has been through over the past four months that tonight will be extra special for him.

Chris Henry factfile
1984: Born, 17 October, Belfast
2003: Ulster Schools and Irish Schools captain
2004: Played for Ireland in U20 World Cup
2008: Ulster senior debut
2010: Ireland Wolfhounds skipper, first Ireland cap and Ulster player of year
2012: Helps Ulster reach Heineken Cup final
2014: Part of Ireland's Six Nations Championship winning team

"I also know that the crowd will give him a huge reception if and when he takes to the pitch. For the coaches and players of Ulster Rugby, it is just great to have him back."

Speaking about his health scare, Henry said that he had been left "terrified" by the episode which caused him to lose strength in an arm and one side of his face.

Doctors initially thought Henry was suffering from a severe migraine.

However, after four days of treatment at St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin, it emerged he had suffered a Transient Ischaemic Attack - known as a mini-stroke - because the hole in his heart had led to a blocked blood vessel in his brain.

"The doctors have been able to get in there and fix the problem and for me to have that clarity, I feel so lucky," said Henry in December.

"I was lucky to have such incredible medical expertise around me after I was taken straight to St Vincent's on the Saturday."

Henry revealed that his room-mate and fellow Ireland player Rhys Ruddock came to his aid, ensuring a doctor was by his side within three minutes of the incident.

The Ulster forward acknowledged his initial fear was that his career might be over. But now he is aiming to reclaim his Ireland place for next year's World Cup.

"I think that is a realistic target," he said. "In my mind, I want to be back by the end of this season. Whether that is pushing it too much, we'll just have to wait and see."