Johann Muller's Ulster Rugby future in doubt
There is growing speculation that Ulster skipper Johann Muller intends to hang up his boots at the end of the season and return to his native South Africa.
The 33-year-old second row has yet to indicate his intentions beyond this campaign but it is now thought likely that the Springbok World Cup winner may decide to call time on his glittering career.
Though Muller signed a one-year extension to his contract last season to take him up to the end of this campaign – an indicator that he probably did not intend to play too much longer – his potential departure from Ravenhill would still give Ulster a huge gap to fill despite the possible warning of his intentions.
With John Afoa on his way to Gloucester at the season's end and Tom Court also having signed up for London Irish, Muller's potential exit would leave Ulster without three of this campaign's front-line starting pack and kick-start a possibly busy recruitment drive which might be complicated by the IRFU's – by no means rigorously observed – player succession strategy to limit numbers of Non-Ireland Eligible (NIE) players in squads.
Having said that, this strategy is believed to be more orientated towards developing Irish qualified talent in the front row and may not prevent Ulster from seeking out another world class lock.
Muller, who is one of the Ulster squad's key players, is now in his fourth season at Ravenhill and is leading the side – who are currently fifth in the PRO12 and are top of their Heineken Cup pool after winning all four game so far – for the third consecutive campaign.
The South African has skippered the side at last season's PRO12 final and the Heineken Cup final in May 2012 which, on both occasions, saw Ulster falter in their bid to secure silverware to old rivals Leinster.
In addition to his leadership skills, Muller has been renowned for bringing greater organisation to Ulster's forward play, particularly the lineout which is his primary area of expertise.
It is also possible that he may have the option of remaining at Ravenhill in some form of coaching capacity though, again, this is by no means certain.
However, the 24-times capped Springbok had a disrupted season in the last campaign due to a succession of injuries and, last October, picked up a calf problem which ruled him out for several weeks and ther is a price to pay for having played front-line rugby since 2001.