Gloucester is surprise next stop for John Afoa
Ulster tight-head John Afoa is on his way from Ravenhill.
No real surprise – he was never expected to be staying beyond the end of the current season.
But the 2011 World Cup-winner's destination was totally unforeseen, for he is joining Aviva Premiership club Gloucester.
With his wife Theresa and the couple's children Mateo and Chloe having left Belfast and gone back to New Zealand last year – since when their third child, Violet, has been born – the expectation was that the 30-year-old former All Black would be rejoining them.
His native Auckland was touted as a possible destination, not least because on his frequent visits home to see his family he used the world-famous Blues' facilities to keep himself in shape.
Following one such session in February, Auckland Blues' head coach Sir John Kirwan said: "He has played over 100 games here, he's one of us. If he wants to come home we'd love to talk to him."
As recently as October the world-class prop told the Belfast Telegraph: "I turned 30 last week and my career is on the home straight now. It is a life decision with a lot of planning behind it. I've maybe got two or three contracts left so I have to make sure everything is lined up."
In the wake of South African Ruan Pienaar and Afoa's fellow-Kiwi Nick Williams having put pen to paper for three and two more years with Ulster, the big prop said: "I've seen the other guys sign up, so it's important I sort out my own future soon. Family is the big one – that's the main motivator."
With 48 appearances since joining Ulster after New Zealand's World Cup triumph in 2011, Afoa – provided he avoids injury – will reach his half-century against Treviso in Italy on Saturday week.
David Humphreys, Ulster's Director of Rugby who pulled a masterstroke in persuading him to play for the province, was full of praise for the departing Kiwi.
"John has made a fantastic contribution to Ulster Rugby in the two years he has been here," Humphreys said.
"He has been excellent on and off the pitch, working with Allen Clarke to develop the next generation of props for Ulster and Ireland.
"With his wife and children in New Zealand, it has been a challenge for John balancing the needs of rugby and family, but he has handled that situation with the utmost professionalism.
"When he leaves, everyone here will wish John well. Until that time, I know that he will be fully committed to us and he will now be even more determined to help Ulster be successful this season."
Afoa said: "It is good to have my long term future sorted out, however I still have a lot of rugby to play with Ulster. I have six months remaining on my contract and I am focused on winning something this season. When I retire, I will reflect on my time at Ravenhill with a lot of pride."
Afoa has been one of Ulster's four permitted overseas players – alongside Pienaar, Williams and Johann Muller – and his departure, along with that of front row colleague, loose-head Tom Court, will leave Ulster having to replace two international props.
And captain Muller's future has yet to be resolved.