Ulster have strengthened their squad for next season with four new signings including South Africa and Natal Sharks prop BJ Botha.
The Belfast Telegraph can exclusively reveal today that Botha, the 28-year-old tighthead prop who has won 16 caps for the Springboks, will be joined at Ravenhill next season by Queensland Reds full-back/wing Clinton Schifcokske (32), Western Stormers No 8 Robbie Diack (22) and Queensland Reds lock Ed O'Donoghue (25).
The signings, confirmed by sources in both South Africa and Australia, are part of Ulster coach Matt Williams' move to put his stamp on the squad for next season and fill the holes left by the departing Tommy Bowe, Neil Best, Roger Wilson, Justin Harrison and Neil McMillan as well as the retirements of Simon Best and David Humphreys.
Botha is the marquee name of the four, widely regarded as one of the best scrummagers in the game and a World Cup winner.
But Schifcokske, a former rugby league star with Canberra Raiders and the Queensland State of Origin team, is also regarded as a dangerous goal-kicking and hard running full-back.
Diack is earmarked as a player of rich potential and standing at 6ft 6ins will bring a massive physical presence to the back row while the Irish-qualified O'Donoghue is a regular squad player for the Reds. All the contracts are believed to be two-year deals.
With Tom Court also agreeing a new contract and Ian Humphreys on his way, Williams' squad is now taking shape for next season.
The Ulster coach however is still in the hunt for a top class wing, a scrum-half and possibly a back five player.
As South Africans have full European working rights, they do not count as overseas players for the Heineken Cup, so currently the only non-EU player in the squad is Schifcokske, which allows Williams to sign an overseas wing, with Mark Bartholomeusz likely to be moving on.
The IRFU's directive is for the provinces to only have four non-Irish qualified players in their squads but they have accepted that it can only be fully implemented once current contracts have expired, which means Rob Dewey, Simon Danielli and Carlo Del Fava are not included for next season.
ULSTER SQUAD 2008/09: Loosehead props: B Young, J Fitzpatrick, J Carey. Tighthead props: BJ Botha, T Court, D Fitzpatrick.Hookers: R Best, N Brady, N Hanna Locks: C Del Fava, R Caldwell, M McCullough, E O'Donoghue. Back row: K Dawson, S Ferris, D Pollock, R Diak, C Henry, AN Other.Scrum-half: I Boss, P Marshall, AN Other; Out-half: N O'Connor, I Humphreys, Centres: A Trimble, P Wallace, R Dewey, P Steinmetz, D Cave. Wings: S Danielli, M McCrea, P McKenzie, ANOTHER. Full-backs: B Cunningham, C Schifcokske.