Collapsed Botha deal could force Ulster to look south again
Ulster are on the hunt for a new back-rower after being forced to pull the plug on their move for South African Arno Botha.
It was announced in January that the twice-capped Springbok would be heading to Kingspan Stadium on a two-year contract, only for the deal to be voided once the 25-year-old's troublesome knee was examined by both Ulster and an independent medical team.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that, while the proposed move was announced after reports in the press had flagged the signing, the contract couldn't be finalised until after a medical, which was then delayed when Botha picked up a knee injury last month.
Despite having had multiple issues in the past, it is believed that it is only this latest issue which has scuppered the deal put in place with the Bulls man's representatives CSM, with the first and only examination Ulster undertook having led to the abandoning of the deal.
"It's unfortunate for both Arno and Ulster Rugby that we've had to come to this decision as we were looking forward to welcoming him to Kingspan Stadium," said Operations Manager Bryn Cunningham. "However, we have acted with the best interests of team performance in mind.
"Everyone associated with Ulster Rugby sincerely hopes that Arno will go on to have a long and successful career."
It is not a wholly unprecedented situation for the side, who in 2010 saw a previously announced deal for Cardiff's Xavier Rush left in tatters after a U-turn from the player, only to then have Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg pitch up in Belfast and enjoy a hugely successful stint.
As such, while surely disappointing for province and devastating for player, Ulster's attention has already quickly turned to who will fill the void in next season's forward unit.
"Once this decision was reached, we compiled an extensive list of potential targets and we will announce a signing to bolster the pack in due course," Cunningham added. Before the move to sign Botha, the province had already made advances to try and lure multiple Leinster back-rowers to come north with the promise of more game time.
And while the pitch made to Jack Conan is believed to have been particularly impressive, the attempts have as yet all been rebuffed due to the inability to out-bid neighbours for their players.
Others among Leo Cullen's surplus of loose forwards are expected to be targeted in the coming months, but only with a view to 2018-19.
Given the specific attributes currently lacking in the squad, there has been little interest shown in on-the-move Irish-qualified back-rowers Sean Dougall and Dominic Ryan, and so it seems likely the team will once again be looking to the southern hemisphere.
With a non-Irish qualified squad spot to fill, and presumably the money earmarked for Botha to spend, it will be an interesting test of Cunningham's wheeling and dealing skills.
While requiring the all-important IRFU stamp of approval on any deal, the former full-back has pulled rabbits out of the hat before when convincing big name additions Charles Piutau and Marcell Coetzee to move north, and he will need to do so again with the back-row still a position of need.
Coetzee's return to fitness is hoped to provide a much needed boost but, while Sean Reidy, and indeed Clive Ross, have exceeded expectations over the past few seasons, it is not an area of depth for the team.
Former stalwarts Nick Williams and Roger Wilson have moved on or retired in the past two seasons, while youngsters who have appeared for the senior side like Lorcan Dow, Stephen Mulholland and Conor Joyce have been released this summer.
The fear for Ulster fans will be that they are doing their shopping when everyone else has already filled their trolley.
But, before being rebuffed by the union, the province had already been identifying available back-row targets in the short-term as injury cover for Coetzee, while there are a number of players who will have come onto the market only after Botha was identified as the man to bring some added grunt to a pack that will be put through its paces by the new head coach Jono Gibbes next season.
The unfortunate uncertainty in Super Rugby - two South African and one Australian side will be culled ahead of next season - could also offer up other intriguing possibilities, with there sure to be international quality players soon finding out their clubs are no longer to be part of the premier competition.
But with Ulster needing to hit the ground running next season after such a sub-par campaign this time around, fans will surely be anxious to see the cheque book come out quickly and decisively.
Elsewhere, there have been changes to the make-up of the Champions Cup.
Now a true meritocracy, in 2018 there will no longer be one team from each competing country in the PRO12 who qualify.
Instead it will be the league's best seven teams, along with the top six from the Premiership and Top 14.
The final place will, rather than the winner of a play-off, now go to the Challenge Cup champions.