Ulster's new tighthead, John Afoa, is expected to make his debut for the province on Saturday having begun his long-haul flight from New Zealand last night.
Coach Brian McLaughlin chose yesterday’s 2011-12 Irish Heineken Cup launch at Dublin’s Convention Centre to break the news.
The 28-year-old All Blacks prop, who played in the World Cup winners’ victories over Japan and Argentina, had not been expected to arrive until after the first two rounds of Heineken Cup games against Clermont Auvergne and Leicester Tigers on November 12 and 19 respectively.
Indeed, there were fears that he might not set foot on Ulster soil until after Christmas.
But Ulster’s Director of Rugby, David Humphreys, quietly worked a minor miracle in bringing about the Kiwi’s early release, much to the evident relief of a delighted McLaughlin.
It was the best kept secret in rugby. So when, yesterday, the Ulster coach was asked if he expected to have Afoa available before Christmas, he stunned the media hordes with his reply.
“We’re very hopeful that John will be on the plane tonight and that he’ll be here in 40 hours. And while it’s a big ask, we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to use him in some way, shape or form this weekend,” he smiled.
“He’s available for us and we’re really looking forward to having him and Stefan Terblanche joining us.”
The availability of the All Black and the Springbok for the Heineken Cup will give Ulster spirits a timely lift, for having lost each of their last four RaboDirect Pro12 fixtures they were in urgent need of a morale boost.
But McLaughlin knows that Ulster will have to be at their very best if they are to have any chance of emerging from Pool 4 where they have been pitted against Clermont, Leicester and Aironi.
Speaking in the ambience of the gleaming North Wall Quay venue where he was joined at the launch by his Leinster, Munster and Connacht counterparts Joe Schmidt, Tony McGahan and Eric Elwood respectively, McLaughlin admitted that Ulster had raised the bar on themselves as a result of last season’s heroics.
“Consolidation is one thing that we’ve talked about this year,” he said. “Last year, to get to the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup and the semi-final of the Magners (League) as it was then was a huge leap for us. This season’s Heineken group is an outstanding group. We want to be in a group where we’re playing the best rugby sides.
“We’re playing Clermont, whose form this season has been immense. They’ve just totally thrashed Biarritz at the weekend. The week before that they went to Perpignan and beat them — and Perpignan hadn’t been beaten at home for nearly two years.
“Leicester, along with Toulouse, are the most consistent side in Europe. And from our point of view, Aironi — well, we know the difficulties that they present.
“Over the next while, as far as the European Cup is concerned, that’s right at the cutting edge where we want to be so we’ve got to prove ourselves against that top opposition.
“It’s not daunting; it’s exciting. Last season we went maybe beyond our dreams in doing well in both competitions — last eight and last four, but then stuttered.
“We don’t want to be there stuttering; we want to be there forcing ourselves to greater things.
“That’s the challenge for us all.”
McLaughlin also said that how Ulster approach the tough draw is all-important.
“Whenever the group was announced it was a case of a lot of people coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh my goodness, Brian, what are you going to do?’,” he said.
“You can’t react like that. If you want to be the best then you’ve got to beat the best. The last four games haven’t gone as we wanted them to go and we’re under no illusions.
“This Saturday against Connacht is going to be tough; the week after is going to be tough and the week after that is going to be tough again. That’s just the way the RaboDirect is, that’s the way Europe is and that’s the way we want it.”