Stephen Ferris's hopes of a return to action have suffered a major setback following the latest review of his ankle tendon injury.
In the aftermath of the surgery he underwent on December 5 to repair damage sustained a month earlier in the PRO12 match against Edinburgh at Ravenhill – ironically a fixture in which he had hoped to persuade Ireland of his fitness for November's Guinness Series – initially the signs were good.
There was even speculation that he might play some part in the latter stages of this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship.
As recently as January 23, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe gave a then-positive update on Ferris's state of health, expressing his hope that the powerful Ireland and Lions blindside flanker might be back playing within the month.
Anscombe's upbeat opinion of the 27-year-old's prospects was: "Stephen Ferris, mid-February, fingers crossed, all going well."
Inevitably that gave rise to speculation that he might even be fit to face France at the Aviva Stadium on March 9 and Italy in Rome's Olympic Stadium a week later. The player himself gave credence to the idea when said he hoped "to be back in early March".
Now though, all of that optimism is seen to have been very far wide of the mark.
As was the case in 2011, he will miss the entire 2013 championship. Indeed, the fear is that Ferris, who made his Ulster debut in October, 2005, may not play again this season.
Confirming that his progress had been reviewed, yesterday Ulster Rugby issued a brief statement. It read: "In that review it was discovered that, although Stephen has made excellent progress in his recovery, some minor issues remain.
"As a result, the specialist medical-staff treating Stephen are considering several options to ensure that he makes a full and complete return to play. A decision on a course of action will be made in the coming weeks."
No detail was offered as to the 'minor issues' which remain, or the nature of the 'several options' under consideration.
But certainly the statement leaves open the door to the operating theatre for further surgery and, with it, yet more post-operative care and rehabilitation.
With Ferris playing no part in this season's Six Nations, his chances of a place in the Lions' party for the June/July trip to Australia would appear to have gone, too.
And from an Ulster perspective, his now almost inevitable unavailability for the Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Saracens at Twickenham on April 6 – just six weeks away – is a real blow. Last night former Ulster and Ireland flanker Andy Ward said: "From what I'm told it's the Irish management who are in charge of his treatment now.
"They're the guys paying the bills so they'll keep him out as long as they need to in order to be sure that he's fully recovered.
"It must be incredibly frustrating for Stevie. But he has been carrying injuries for a few seasons and there comes a time when you've got to say 'We can't keep going on with these – let's just draw a line under this and get it all sorted out if we can'."
Ferris was selected for the 2009 British & Irish Lions squad but, after making a brilliant early impression in South Africa, suffered a knee injury which ended his tour.