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Ulster play waiting game as South Africa deal with Ruan Pienaar's knee damage

By Michael Sadlier

Just when all seemed reasonably well in the aftermath of Friday's bonus point win over Zebre, along came news from the other side of the world which set Ulster rocking on their heels.

The sight of Ruan Pienaar being carried off on Saturday in Wellington, as South Africa headed towards defeat against the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship, has caused much anxiety back in Ulster.

The reality, of course, is that this was a situation just waiting to happen due to their star player's heavy workload and almost constant time playing the game thanks to his international commitments kicking in during his main employer's off-season and early parts of the actual northern hemisphere playing calendar.

The prognosis seemed fairly stark; medial ligament damage from an accidental collision with a team-mate and time away from the game which could be around somewhere between six to eight weeks, though possibly longer. Further confirmation of the extent of the 30-year-old's condition was expected today when a more accurate prognosis should be delivered.

Pienaar's largely intact fitness has been something close to miraculous since he arrived at Ulster but, now, he looks to be heading towards a considerable amount of time on the sidelines which is horrible timing for Ulster, especially with the European Champions Cup due to kick-off at Leicester Tigers on October 18 with champions Toulon then heading the Belfast the next week, and could also rule him out of further participation with the Boks on their autumn tour to Europe.

True, in the ordinary course of events, Ulster would only have had him back briefly next month after the end of the Rugby Championship before he would undoubtedly have gone away on Bok duty again so a considerable period of time would already have elapsed anyway before Ulster could have expected him for long-term duty, but the situation now suggests that he looks almost sure to miss those key two European openers for his club.

Now, it's an anxious wait for Ulster who have already got another vital player, Iain Henderson, going under the knife and expected to be out for some time while Jared Payne nurses a hip injury and star men Tommy Bowe and Paddy Jackson await their first outings of the season, though it is thought the latter two will be ready for Cardiff on Friday.

Add to that squad prop Declan Fitzpatrick who has suffered another concussion and is serving the established protocols on this issue while Darren Cave also picked up a knock against Zebre and squad member Rory Scholes is believed to have sustained an ankle injury in Limerick while on duty with Belfast Harlequins. Yes, the list of injured players just seems to be growing.

And all this to take our gaze away from the impending announcement – apparently some time over the next couple of weeks and ahead of interim coach Les Kiss's departure on around October 13 – of Ulster's new coaching structure.

The smart money now appears to now be on an in-house appointment, for the time being anyway, with Neil Doak's name being aired. However, nothing seems entirely clear cut on this issue.

Anyway, back to Friday and now having eight points out of a possible 10 – and scoring nine tries in two games – is pretty good but Ulster know they still need to improve.

They blew hot and cold and their error count was too high which Kiss and Doak doubtless stressed to the players back in the changing room and will be doing so again this week as they prepare for two nasty looking away games with Cardiff Blues on Friday night – where they lost last season – and Zebre, again, on September 27.

It was understandable that the squad didn't exactly hit their straps on Friday what with eight changes having been made from the high scoring draw the week before at the Scarlets. They spilled balls, blew some scoring chances and coughed up a soft try.

Indeed, they only led 19-10 until around the hour mark and only pushed on to score their bonus point try through the hard-working Andrew Trimble's try – which effectively sealed the game – after being reduced to 14 men after Ricky Andrew was, rather fortunately, just sent to the bin for colliding with Brendon Leonard when the latter player was in midair.

From there, Ulster seemed to regain themselves somewhat – in fairness, their scrum was much more solid than at the Scarlets and led to two of their five tries – and Dan Tuohy's ate score came right out of the top drawer after Ian Humphreys had collected a loose kick and countered before chipping over the top for Tuohy to collect and bag his second try in as many games.

"I've always said if you hang out there long enough it will come and I'd done enough work to merit a rest out on the wing and I took that try superbly," said Tuohy with what was a rare sortie towards humour after the game.

"We are certainly heading in the right direction," said the Ireland international.

"With so many personnel changes (for Friday's game) and with guys that haven't played a whole heap for us we can see that they are starting to bed into the team and that will start to show."

"But it is a learning process for all us," he added, "but, we got the five points and now we must just move on.

"We have back-to-back away games now and if we can win in Cardiff then that will avenge last year and then it is Zebre again."

"We've had a good start to the season," he added.

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