Tommy Bowe's injury woe
Ulster have been dealt a huge blow with their Ireland and Lions wing ace Tommy Bowe ruled out for at least a month – worst case scenario six weeks – by a torn muscle in his groin.
With Jared Payne – another groin injury victim – also rated as no better than 50-50 to make Saturday night's starting line-up against Benetton Treviso in the Heineken Cup at Ravenhill, coach Mark Anscombe is having to rethink his plans.
He already is without a trio of Irish international forwards in Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry, plus Lewis Stevenson.
Bowe's problem – picked up while on Ireland duty in the recent three-match Guinness Series – was confirmed yesterday by a scan. It is the latest is a list of injuries since the 29-year-old – the most prolific try-scorer in PRO12 history – rejoined Ulster from Ospreys in the summer of 2012.
It was well into the autumn before he was able to play, however, having undergone surgery in April to remove a haematoma that had pushed into his kidney. And his comeback was shortlived with a serious knee injury sustained in Ulster's home date with Northampton Saints in the Heineken Cup ruling him out for four months.
He missed the start of the current season with a wrist injury – a legacy of the Lions' summer tour in which he made a remarkable recovery having suffered a broken bone in his hand.
Having been weaned on his county's success on the rugby field, that record-breaking 14th Test win did not surprise him.
Meanwhile, coach Anscombe can see comparisons between how the All Blacks went into their clash with Ireland and how Ulster will also be seen as clear favourites against Treviso.
Anscombe said: "There was expectation that day; people were saying the All Blacks would win by 20 points.
"But the truth is that they were lucky to win. Why? Because the other team turned up. And that's the thing with some of these teams who aren't expected to win; they might just turn up.
"The reason why they are where they are is that they don't do it week to week. But does that mean they can't turn up? No.
"And what you don't know is if that's going to be on the day you play them. That's why you've got to be on your mettle, do your preparation and not let the surprise element of them being up for the game catch you out."
Hooker Rob Herring is good to go after picking up a stinger in Saturday's win over Zebre in Parma. With Best ruled out by the broken arm he suffered in the opening quarter of that Ireland v All Blacks, Herring's availability is a huge relief to Ulster.
Captain Johann Muller will be back on board, too, for the first time since Ulster's late-October victory against Cardiff Blues. He has recovered fully from the calf injury he picked up.
Whilst accepting that Ulster are favourites to beat Treviso in the first of their two back-to-back Heineken Cup meetings – the Italians host the return next weekend – Anscombe warned against treating the Italians as anything other than a very real threat.
"Their season, I'm sure, hasn't gone to plan," he said. "But they're still a team who worry me as much as any in this competition. They've got some bloody good players and if they get it right they're a very awkward team to play.
"And because they have not got it right consistently this year does not mean that they can't get it right this week. So we have to make sure we get our game right.
"We have good clarity in what we need to do in order to do the job, but we have to do it – it's as simple as that."
Pinpointing where the threat to Ulster lies he said: "They're going to have pride in their performance. As well as that, they're playing for selection in their national team for the Six Nations."