Ruan Pienaar could be back with Ulster in time for crucial European fixtures
Ulster were handed a boost yesterday when it was revealed that Springbok scrum-half Ruan Pienaar will return to action quicker than was originally expected.
It was confirmed yesterday that the influential star, who had been expected to miss up to two months, will instead be out for between four and six weeks and now faces a race against time to be fit for Ulster's crucial European Rugby Champions Cup games with Leicester and Toulon next month.
Pienaar sustained a medial collateral ligament sprain after a collision with team-mate Duane Vermuelen in his country's Rugby Championship defeat to New Zealand on Saturday and, with the 30-year-old needing to be carried from the field, the initial prognosis was not good and Ulster prepared for potentially devastating news.
However, after a scan on Monday, the four-six week estimate was revealed by South Africa and the province can now start to hope that the 80-times-capped international could play at least some part in two of their biggest games this season.
While Pienaar will definitely be ruled out of the rest of South Africa's campaign, incorporating a Test against Australia and another meeting with the All Blacks, Ulster open up their European season four weeks from this Saturday against the Leicester Tigers at Welford Road while last season's Heineken Cup winners Toulon visit the Kingspan Stadium seven days later.
While Ulster have become accustomed to coping without their No 9 for the beginning of the PRO12 season due to his international commitments – using Paul Marshall as a deputy for the opening games – to be without one of their most influential figures for such a crucial set of contests would be a huge blow to their aspirations of making an impact on Pool 3.
Last season, Pienaar raced back to fitness after a shoulder issue just in time for the Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens but suffered a re-occurrence of the injury and was not seen again until Ulster's final game of the season against Leinster, a 13-9 defeat in the PRO12's last four.
The news of his quicker than expected recovery came as a fillip to Ulster, who have endured some unfortunate blows in the early stages of this season.
Yesterday it was also revealed that squad member Rory Scholes needs surgery on his foot and will miss up to eight weeks of action.
The promising winger sustained a fracture playing for his club side Harlequins against UL Bohemians at the weekend.
Iain Henderson is also set to go under the knife after his hip problem did not respond to what Ulster called a "conservative management programme."
The procedure is set to take place next Thursday and the Ireland international is expected to be out until the new year.
Jared Payne's own hip injury is not as severe, although the Kiwi back is still ruled out of Friday's visit to the Arms Park for the PRO12 tussle with Cardiff Blues.
Tighthead prop Declan Fitzpatrick is following return to play protocols after picking up a concussion in the season-opening draw against the Scarlets.
There was better news on Darren Cave, however, who is training despite the rib injury he sustained against Zebre last Friday and his status for Ulster's second trip of the season to Wales will be assessed later in the week.
Cardiff Blues say they would be "extremely keen" on Wales star Leigh Halfpenny possibly rejoining them after a cloud was cast over his future at European champions Toulon by the French club's controversial president.
Mourad Boudjellal has claimed in a French newspaper that terminating Halfpenny's existing two-year contract cannot be discounted due to ongoing injury problems.
Halfpenny moved to Toulon from the Blues this summer on a lucrative deal. It was formally announced in January.
He suffered a dislocated shoulder during Wales' RBS 6 Nations defeat against England at Twickenham in March and underwent surgery ahead of an anticipated four month lay-off.
But the 25-year-old goalkicking full-back, who was British and Irish Lions player of the series against Australia last year, is now struggling with a groin injury.
He has yet to play for Toulon since the move, and Boudjellal is rapidly losing patience with the Welshman.
The often outspoken Boudjellal told French publication Varmatin there is a thought that 52-times-capped Halfpenny might have been injured when he signed for Toulon.
Should Boudjellal decide to ditch Halfpenny, it would raise the possibility of him returning to Wales on a dual contract partly-funded by the Welsh Rugby Union, although he is also likely to attract a worldwide scramble for his services.