Andrew Trimble's exit marks end of an era for Ulster, says Rory Best
The phrase 'end of an era' has never seemed quite so apt when it comes to Ulster Rugby.
Those were the words used by former flanker Neil Best in reaction to the retirement of Andrew Trimble, a player he won the Celtic League with in 2006.
Twelve years ago now, that was the province's last piece of silverware and, come next season, skipper Rory Best will be the last man standing from that victorious squad.
"Andrew Trimble's announcement that he won't be around next season really is the end of an era," said Neil Best. "An Ulster legend who's been 13 years at the club. He ranks up there in terms of professionalism and attitude.
"Trimby fought off some great competition to earn those 70 Irish caps and should reflect on his career with great pride that he gave it absolutely everything. I wish him the absolute best."
The page turning at Ulster Rugby doesn't stop there though, and hot on the heels of Trimble's announcement came yesterday's confirmation that another member of the '200 club', Robbie Diack, would be leaving the organisation at the end of the season.
The South African arrived in Belfast a decade ago, going on to become the side's most-capped import and winning a couple of caps for Ireland along the way having qualified on residency.
"When I first came to Ulster in 2008 I had signed a three-year contract and I never imagined that 10 years down the line I'd still be here," he said yesterday.
"Of course I'm very sad to be leaving Ulster, but we feel the time has now come for my family and me to return to South Africa to be closer to family and friends.
"It has been a huge honour for me to play for Ulster and to have earned over 200 caps is something that my family and I are very proud of. I've realised what it means to play for Ulster and I've witnessed the pride and passion of our fans.
"I'll be forever grateful for the opportunities that I've had and the memories that I've made here, and I'm thankful to the people who have supported me.
"While we have quite a few things to keep us occupied in South Africa, I feel that I still have a lot to offer as a professional rugby player. I will be assessing several options on and off the field."
Like Trimble, Diack (right) had another 12 months to run on his contract but has left Kingspan Stadium earlier than expected having become something of a peripheral figure over the past year.
In truth, the over-30s in Belfast are becoming something of an endangered species with Tommy Bowe and Paul Marshall also retiring, while Callum Black will move to Worcester.
When all is said and done this season - for better or worse, almost certainly following a Champions Cup play-off against Ospreys in two weeks' time - the summer will see a radical overhaul as Ulster are set to lose a group that has represented the province on over 1,000 occasions.
It was often said that knock-out defeats to Saracens and Leinster in 2014 heralded the end of the road for arguably Ulster's most talented group of players in the pro era.
After that campaign, John Afoa and Tom Court both departed, while Johann Muller, Paddy Wallace and Stephen Ferris all retired.
But even that off-season of upheaval, which ultimately also saw Director of Rugby David Humphreys and head coach Mark Anscombe depart, doesn't compare to the changing of the guard that has occurred over the past 20 months.
Cast your mind back to the start of the 2016/17 campaign. It's no stretch to say that Ulster's first-choice team then could have been a backline of Charles Piutau at full-back, Bowe and Trimble on the wings, a midfield of Jared Payne and Stuart Olding, and Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson pulling the strings at half-back.
Up front, Black, Rory Best and Wiehahn Herbst would have been at the coalface, Franco van der Merwe and Diack in the engine room and new signing Marcell Coetzee joining a back-row of Chris Henry and Iain Henderson.
Don't forget either, the group would have been led by Les Kiss, with the Australian Director of Rugby assisted by Neil Doak, Allen Clarke and Joe Barakat.
All those coaches are gone, so too even one of their replacements in the weeks ahead, while of the playing group more have departed than remained.
With the future of Payne still very much in doubt, and another of the old warhorses Henry entering the final run of his deal, further change could be only a little down the way.
Continuity is a concept that will seem thin on the ground next season, with another new coach in Dan McFarland taking charge of a group stripped of its most experienced charges.
The word rebuild will no doubt be bandied about, as partially flagged by Bryn Cunningham earlier in the season when discussing the squad's age profile with season ticket holders.
At that briefing he noted how Rory Best was the only of the squad's elder statesmen currently getting a game in a first-choice match-day squad. A changing of the guard seemed imminent then and so it has proved.
While Bowe and Trimble have been sharing time with their successors given the emergence of Jacob Stockdale and Craig Gilroy, others have been blooded during the testing last 12 months.
There's been lots to like about the early cameos from the likes of Matty Rea, Nick Timoney, Matt Dalton, Jonny Stewart, Tom O'Toole and Angus Curtis.
If Ulster are to restore themselves to former glories, these players will likely need to play a key role. They'll require patience too - adjusting to the rigours of the senior game is something that takes time, but ultimately they are the future.
We've been told that the Academy crop behind them, moulded by Willie Anderson and Kieran Campbell, is the province's most talented in some time.
Next season, they'll have little choice but to prove it. It'll be a case of sink or swim.