A CLOUD appears to be hanging over Nick Williams' future at Ulster Rugby after the Kiwi back-rower was yesterday effectively suspended for tomorrow night's PRO12 clash with the Dragons over what is believed to have been an unauthorised absence from squad duties.
The 30-year-old returned home to New Zealand last week and, as such, took no part in last Sunday's 14-12 win in Treviso and Ulster have now launched an investigation over his absence.
Though it was made known at the time that he had gone home for personal reasons, it would appear that his absence was not endorsed by Ulster Rugby and though he is now back in Belfast, Williams – who last season was named PRO12 players' player of the year as well as being voted as Irish players' player of the season – will not be involved with the squad as they manage the five-day turnaround from Sunday to Friday.
A statement from Ulster Rugby said: "Nick Williams is unavailable for selection for Friday night's match against the Newport Gwent Dragons due to an internal investigation into alleged unauthorised absence."
After making a huge impact at Ulster following his signing in June 2012 from now defunct Italian franchise Aironi, the former Auckland Blue and Munster player has, this season, had an injury-disrupted campaign though still made a trademark impact in last January's epic Heineken Cup pool victory at Leicester Tigers.
It is believed that the Ravenhill favourite will face some form of disciplinary hearing but the hope would be that Williams – if served with a suspension in addition to a fine – could, if fit, yet feature as Ulster approach the business end of the season.
Williams signed a contract extension last October, which secured his services until the summer of 2016.
Meanwhile, Tommy Bowe is believed to be edging ever closer to some game-time and could yet be on board for Friday night as third-placed Ulster take on the Dragons, who are in seventh and did Ulster's play-off cause no harm at all by seeing off Glasgow at Rodney Parade last Sunday.
"We're looking at him, he's not ruled in or out at this stage," coach Mark Anscombe said.
"But it's been a while since Tommy has been out and with what is coming ahead of us we want to make sure we're not rushing it," the coach stated, which suggested that the winger may be more likely to feature in the rearranged game against the Scarlets on March 14.
Ulster could also benefit from having Ireland squad members Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson released to get some valuable game-time under their belts before Ireland reconvene for next Saturday's Six Nations clash with Italy.
Both trained with Ulster yesterday before hooking up with Joe Schmidt's squad, who have assembled for a training camp in Belfast and Anscombe remained hopeful that both could be featuring against the Dragons.
Meanwhile, John Afoa – who returned to his native New Zealand because of a family bereavement – will not be available until the Scarlets game.
The Ulster coach, though, clearly had some harsh words for his squad following Sunday's narrow squeak in Treviso and has demanded improvement from some of his key players as they aim for a 10th straight win at Ravenhill.
"We had a break for three weeks, had a game then a break for another week.
"It's not ideal, that's not an excuse. The fact is we haven't played well but have two wins," he said.
"We've got two or three guys on the fringe of the national team and these are the opportunities that we need to take and they have to show the national body that they need to be looked at regularly and not sulking because they are not in the national team.
"They have to show that they are international quality players and maybe a few of them haven't done that in the last few weeks," the coach stated without naming names.