Departing Nick Williams a big doubt for Ulster's remaining games
New Zealander may have played his last game for Ulster
Ulster are waiting to hear if New Zealander Nick Williams has played his last game for the province. The popular and influential number 8 will depart for Cardiff at the end of this season after four seasons in Belfast but is battling injuries to his shoulder and groin after last weekend's defeat to Glasgow.
The former Munster and Aironi man was brought off at half-time of the loss at Scotstoun and will see a shoulder specialist to determine how long he will be on the sidelines.
With just four games of the season remaining, spread over the course of six weeks and concluding on May 7 with a trip to Ospreys if Ulster do not make the play-offs, it would certainly be a blow for supporters if they have seen the last of the 2012's Pro12 Player of the Year at Kingspan Stadium.
Williams' place in the squad next season will be taken by South African international Marcell Coetzee who arrives this summer.
Also due for a visit to the specialist is lock Alan O'Connor.
The Dublin-born, Ulster Academy product dislocated a shoulder early on against Glasgow and also faces the prospect of watching the campaign's run-in from the treatment table.
In further disappointing news for coach Les Kiss and his side, full-back Louis Ludik is another doubt after his persistent groin injury flared up in training last week to prevent him making a comeback against the league champions.
Having just been boosted by the return to fitness of star forward Iain Henderson, and with Tommy Bowe’s first provincial game of the season thought to be imminent, the losses will be a bitter blow to Les Kiss just as the injury picture appeared to be brightening.
With Connacht to visit Kingspan on Friday, Ulster already know that their play-off chances appear remote after a disappointing run of three losses in four games.
Even a clean sweep of wins over the final weeks may not be enough for a side who currently sit fifth and above Glasgow – who have a game in hand and three clashes remaining against Italian sides – only on points difference
With seventh-placed Edinburgh four points behind and breathing down their necks, it is a critical run for Ulster even if the top four is beyond their reach given the need to finish in the top half to secure qualification for next season’s Champions Cup.
The side do remain hopeful, however, that Irish trio Rory Best, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne will be available for Friday’s clash against the table-topping westerners.
While other provinces had their Six Nations stars back in harness last weekend, Ulster’s three front-liners were not in the panel that travelled to Scotland’s second city.
Having returned to training during last week, Kiss had intimated he would have to wait and see if they were made available by the IRFU to face Gregor Townsend’s men.
While in the end there was no restriction placed on the selection from Dublin, all three reported back with what were described as “low-grade” muscle injuries.
However, with Connacht’s visit now representing something of a win-or-bust scenario, it is suspected that they will feature for the first time since playing against Oyonnax in the final round of European action two months ago.