Injury woes cast cloud over Ulster hopes for the future
Even though they signed off by taking ownership of the last place up for grabs in the Champions Cup, Ulster are already facing worrying issues regarding player fitness and availability for the start of next season.
Key backs Luke Marshall and Louis Ludik are facing lengthy spells on the sidelines after suffering serious injuries in last Sunday's Champions Cup play-off with the Ospreys.
And further damage was shipped on Sunday as promising prop Tom O'Toole was yesterday forced to withdraw from the Ireland Under-20 side set for the World Championships in France after the 19-year-old sustained a knee injury during his impressive 80-minute shift against the Welsh side.
Marshall picked up his knee injury in the second half of the clash with the Ospreys which resulted in the Ireland international being taken off on the medical cart.
It is believed that it could require surgery and looks likely to keep him out of action for a substantial part of next season.
Ludik succumbed early in the first half of Sunday's match with what is thought to be a very badly damaged hamstring, which will also see the Irish-qualified South African spend a lengthy period out of action and likely minimise his involvement next term.
As things stand, Ulster really could have done without losing any more of their backline as they bid to bounce back from the notable difficulties experienced both on and off the field in the season just gone.
With Marshall and Ludik looking like non-starters for a considerably sizeable chunk of the next campaign, if not indeed all of it, it means that a potential crisis is looming regarding those playing behind the scrum.
The squad's backline is now looking rather low in numbers when it comes to experience and strength in depth following the departures of Charles Piutau, Tommy Bowe, Paul Marshall and Andrew Trimble while, of course, Jared Payne is not expected to feature again in an Ulster shirt with official confirmation of his retirement thought to be pending.
Add in the revoked contracts of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding and Ulster's cupboard is looking pretty bare should any further injury issues strike those backs still with the squad.
Jacob Stockdale and John Cooney will also, presumably, be absent at the start of the campaign because of their involvement in next month's three-Test Ireland tour to Australia.
With the notion that Joey Carbery might switch from Leinster to Ulster now looking highly unlikely, and the potential signing of Springbok Elton Jantjies seemingly dead in the water, Will Addison - from Sale Sharks - is the only notable backline player on his way to the Kingspan Stadium, and even he picked up a hamstring injury in his final game for the Sharks earlier this month.
Whether there is much mileage in the possibility of Ian Keatley being re-routed from Munster to give Ulster a dig-out at out-half, the province have still been shorn of seven players who will simply not tog out in their backline again.
Numbers-wise that represents an entire backline and, should Marshall and Ludik not be seen for most of next season, then Ulster will be looking to belatedly sign some new players or use much more of Rob Lyttle and Peter Nelson as well as the likes of Jack Owens and Academy players Angus Curtis and James Hume.
Meanwhile, it is believed that incoming Ulster coach Dan McFarland will definitely be touring with Scotland to North America and Argentina until late June, which appears to cast further doubt on whether he will be released early from his existing contract to take charge of the province's pre-season.
The Scottish Rugby Union have made it known that McFarland, who previously coached at Connacht and Glasgow Warriors before joining Scotland's national set-up, is contracted with them up until January 2019 which, presumably, means negotiation is still required to release him in time for Ulster's pre-season.
Ulster's predicament over McFarland's availability was brought into sharp contrast yesterday with the appointment of former Australia Sevens coach Andy Friend as Connacht's new head coach.
Friend, who was heavily linked as a front-runner for the Ulster job, has signed a three-year deal at the Sportsground and will arrive in late June for pre-season without any issue hanging over his appointment.