Ulster have been dealt another huge injury blow with the news that number eight forward, Nick Williams, is likely to be out for the next eight weeks.
But his unavailability opens the door for Roger Wilson to re-assert himself after losing out to his rival in the fight for a place in the line-up which started against Glasgow Warriors in last Friday night’s Heineken Cup Pool Four win at Ravenhill
It was mid-way through the second period that Williams — Ulster’s first-half try-scorer — suffered medial ligament damage to his left knee. The injury was assessed yesterday and following that the prognosis was that he could be sidelined for up to two months.
That means him missing Saturday’s final Heineken Cup pool-stage match against Castres Olympique at Stade Pierre Antoine where Ulster must win, with a bonus point, in order to nail down a home quarter-final.
After this weekend’s trip to Castres, Ulster do not play again until February 8 when they host champions, Ospreys, which means that the first three weeks of Williams’s time out are blank.
The 6ft 3ins, 19st 5lbs Kiwi is expected to miss the RaboDirect PRO12 leaders’ matches against Zebre and Glasgow, too.
A total of seven touchdowns in Ulster’s last 12 games — including one in each of the past three — make Williams the province’s leading try-scorer this season.He is also an established crowd favourite.
But now it is Wilson’s turn to shine, having re-joined Ulster last summer following four seasons with Northampton Saints.
Since coming home he has added 11 appearances to the 116 he had clocked up before departing.
In 127 Ulster outings he has scored a dozen tries, underlining the fact that he and Williams are very different types of players.
Speaking after Friday night’s win against Glasgow, Anscombe praised both men, starting with Williams whom he coached at North Harbour in the Air New Zealand Cup.
“Nick’s always been a good footballer. He was doing what he’s doing here back in New Zealand five or six years ago.
“Nick’s a guy who when you give him that momentum he thrives on it.
“He likes it here, he’s enjoying the environment, he gets on well with the guys and he’s happy.
“He’s a big bus and he’s a hard man to stop. He’s got that confidence, though there are areas of his game that he’s got to keep working on and he’s doing that so he has become a pretty important part of us,” was his assessment of Williams.
“But we’re fortunate that we’ve got some good loose forwards here because Robbie Diack has been playing really well and I thought Roger Wilson came off the bench tonight and was superb.
“I thought he added a little bit of energy when we needed it, so we’re fortunate in those areas.”
Williams’ injury is another blow for coach Mark Anscombe, who has already had to deal with long-term injuries to skipper Johann Muller (arm), Tommy Bowe (knee), Luke Marshall (hand) and Stephen Ferris (ankle).
There was also a further setback for lock Dan Tuohy, who will miss Saturday's final Pool Four trip to Castres where Ulster require a first competitive victory on French soil if they want a home draw in the quarter-finals.
Ulster are hoping that New Zealand-born Williams will be ready to face Edinburgh in a Pro12 game on March 22, or Leinster the following week, in preparation for the Heineken Cup quarter-final in April.
Plucked from relative obscurity by Anscombe, the No 8 has scored seven tries for Ulster this season.
Better news is that Craig Gilroy and Paddy Jackson are both expected to be fit, although Ireland winger Gilroy is expected to go through a concussion protocol test before he gets the all-clear following a bang to the head. Jackson turned an ankle, but he is responding well to treatment.
Jared Payne suffered discomfort after the game against Glasgow following a groin problem, but he is also expected to be ready for the trip to France.
Prop forward Adam Macklin is likely to be out a few more weeks after he sustained a knee injury during the Ravens 12-8 defeat to Bristol in the British & Irish Cup.
Skipper Chris Henry says the job in Europe is still only half done.
“It's great that we have qualified but I think the most important thing now is that we have a home quarter. That's everything,” said the Ireland flanker.
“Our goal at the start of the year was to be competing with the best, to be up there with Leinster and Munster. We have talked about that for two or three years.”