Ulster blow as Williams' season is ended by suspension
Suspension casts cloud over confirmation of Piutau deal
Nick Williams is today coming to terms with being banned from playing again this season after receiving an eight-week sanction for striking Cardiff Blues full-back Rhys Patchell in last Friday's game.
And the guilty verdict handed down yesterday by the PRO12 Rugby Disciplinary Committee - which was reduced from 16 weeks - could also have rattled Ulster's hopes of securing this season's league title as the battle to secure a play-off place reaches its climax.
The suspension means that the 31-year-old will be unable to play again until September 1 which not only sees him miss Ulster's last four regulation games - never mind a possible semi-final and final which could both be at the Kingspan - but rules him out of the side's warm-up fixtures ahead of next season.
Williams has the right to appeal, though it is unclear if this avenue is likely to be pursued.
Powerful number eight Williams was sin-binned over last Friday's incident which took place early in the 36-17 bonus-point win over the Blues at the Kingspan Stadium and resulted in a 10-minute delay while Patchell was stretchered off.
Williams was cited early this week under Law 10.4(a) which states that "A player must not strike an opponent with the fist or arm, including the elbow, shoulder, head or knee(s)."
The disciplinary committee's statement said: "Having viewed footage of the incident and listened to representations made by and on behalf of the player, the committee found that the incident was at the top end of the World Rugby sanctions for this type of offence, meriting a 16-week starting point.
"In the absence of any aggravating factors and in light of several mitigating factors, including the player's exemplary previous playing record, the committee applied an eight-week reduction."
Even though Ulster will miss Williams' presence, they hope to still be in a fairly robust state with Roger Wilson likely to be deployed as frontline number eight even though he was unavailable for the Blues tie due to personal issues.
He may be back for Saturday week's next game at Connacht.
Nevertheless, having another player out of commission was the last thing Ulster needed.
Meanwhile, Ulster yesterday confirmed the signing of Charles Piutau with his arrival date being July 1, 2016.
The 23-year-old, who is due to play for struggling Auckland Blues against the Chiefs on Saturday, is hoping to be part of the All Blacks squad for the forthcoming World Cup and will then see out next season's Super Rugby championship before heading to Belfast for the start of the 2016-17 season.
Speculation has already begun as to who Ulster's signing - secured for £1m over his two years here - will replace in the current IRFU-sanctioned Non-Irish Qualified roster at the Kingspan.
The existing structure allows for four NIQs and only one overseas player, Ruan Pienaar, is on the books beyond the end of next season.
Wiehahn Herbst is the province's project player and will also remain at the Kingspan until he qualifies for Ireland in 2017 so that means that Piutau will come in for either Louis Ludik, Franco van der Merwe or Williams, who are all out of contract in spring 2016.
"It was a difficult decision to leave the Blues and New Zealand rugby as I have really enjoyed my time with them so far," Piutau said.
"However, when I spoke with Ulster I was impressed with what they had to say and I am excited about their future plans.
"I'm looking forward to moving to Belfast, experiencing a new culture and playing in the northern hemisphere. I can't wait to get stuck in with my new team-mates in 2016," he added.
Ulster, meanwhile, will host Munster in the penultimate round of PRO12 fixtures live on Sky Sports on Saturday May 9 (2.40pm).