Kiwi star Nick Williams set to quit Ulster for Cardiff
Ulster's Nick Williams will leave the province for Guinness Pro12 rivals Cardiff at the end of the season with head coach Neil Doak saying the number 8 will be "sorely missed."
The burly fans' favourite has spent the past four seasons at Kingspan Stadium but, with his contract expiring this summer, has opted to extend his Pro12 career with a two-year deal in the Welsh capital.
The region will be his fourth European club after representing Aironi and Munster before arriving in Belfast in 2012.
Having won the league during his spell at Thomond Park, the native New Zealander has targeted silverware in his final months as an Ulster player.
"I've thoroughly enjoyed my time in Belfast," said the man who was voted Pro12 Player of the Year in his first season at the club.
"The Ulster people are special and the supporters have always been so good to me.
"My daughter was born in Ireland so it will always be a special place for our family. Rest assured, I'll be giving everything for the team until the end of this season.
"We have set our targets over the next five months and I want to play my part in us achieving them."
On why he opted for Cardiff, the 32-year-old explained that his soon-to-be head coach Danny Wilson sold him on the project.
"I'm excited about what Cardiff Blues are looking to achieve, both on and off the field in the coming years," he added.
"I spoke to Danny at length about the region and his plans. I'm now looking forward to using my experience to help the team and getting stuck in."
After an indifferent spell last season, Williams has been rediscovering his best form of late and Doak has said the player will be hard to replace both on and off the pitch.
"Obviously a couple of seasons ago in the Pro12 he was Player of the Year and that was fully deserved," he said.
"He's a big man but he's deft.
"His skills are outstanding and he plays with that fluidity.
"He'll be sorely missed and it's key for us that his season continues with the type performances that he's been putting in.
"We saw against Toulouse what he can do with those crucial turnovers but, aside from rugby, he brings that light-heatertedness to the squad.
"Even at the weekend there it was him that had the music going in the airport getting everybody going. He's a great character around the squad and he'll be sorely missed.
"It'll be strange next season planning against him.
"It'll be flipped around for the next couple of seasons but that's rugby now.
"People look for different challenges.
"We wish him and his family all the best definitely."
Doak has said it's vital that any non-Irish qualified replacement for Williams must not only be an impactful player but also buy into the culture of Ulster Rugby in the way that the former Auckland Blues player did upon arrival.
"The guys who have come in have always fitted in well and been key players in our squad," Doak explained.
"That comes from embracing the culture. The eight years that I've been involved it's been key players that have come in and that'll still be the case.
"To compete on both fronts, you need that depth.
"It's just the nature of pro sport and pro rugby at the moment."
While it is not thought the announcement of any signing is imminent, talks have long since begun about how Williams' squad spot will be used.
While praising the contribution made by the former junior All Black, team manager Bryn Cunningham assured fans that his replacement next season will be a "top class" contributor.
"Nick is a true gentleman and a real fans' favourite," said the 1999 Heineken Cup-winning squad member.
"He is currently producing some excellent rugby for Ulster and I know that he will continue in the same vain for the rest of the season with so much still to play for.
"While we are unable to see Nick in the white of Ulster after his current contract, I want to take this opportunity to thank him for all his efforts over the past four years.
"Over the next period we will be able to announce Nick's replacement, which will be a top class addition to the squad moving into next season."
Pro12 League: Sportsground, Boxing Day, 6pm