A decade ago this week, Ulster announced the signing of Springbok World Cup winner Ruan Pienaar who, over the course of seven years in Belfast, became a favourite adopted son of the province and established himself as one of the finest players to ever pull on the white jersey.
When it comes to successful imports, he’s been far from alone though. Here we take a closer look at Ulster's top 10:
1. Ruan Pienaar
There was only ever going to be one man on top of this list. Pienaar, who spent seven years in Ulster between 2010 and 2017, became the province's undisputed finest import after arriving from the Sharks. A World Cup winner who oozed class on the pitch, the scrum-half gave the impression of gliding across the pitch at his very best. Departing three years ago after the IRFU blocked a proposed extension, he's back in the PRO14 with the Cheetahs this season after spending the previous two campaigns in Montpellier.
2. Andy Ward
Not a traditional import in the sense that he first arrived to play for Ballynahinch rather than Ulster back in 1994 but, once his quality became clear in Co Down, he became a fixture in the back-row. A star of the European Cup winning team in 1999, memorably dashing from Ravenhill to Lagan Valley hospital during the quarter-final win over Toulouse to be present for the birth of his son Zac, Ward won the first of 28 Ireland caps a year prior under Warren Gatland. Would go on to become club captain, leading the side to Celtic Cup triumph in 2004, and still calls Northern Ireland home, appearing regularly as a pundit.
3. Johann Muller
Like Pienaar, Muller arrived in 2010 as a former Shark with a World Cup winners medal in his back pocket after South Africa's triumph at the tournament in 2007. His status in the squad from the off was evidenced by him having the captaincy bestowed upon him while he quickly developed a reputation for demanding excellence. A key figure in Ulster's return to knock-out European rugby for the first time since winning the competition back in 1999, injuries had diminished his minutes by the time of his retirement in 2014 but his leadership never waned. Now back living in Mossel Bay, South Africa.
4. Jared Payne
The province's current defence coach had to retire earlier than anticipated after sustaining an injury on the British and Irish Lions tour to his homeland of New Zealand back in 2017 but he'd already proved a brilliant signing. Injured only a few games into his tenure, he would miss the run to the 2012 Heineken Cup final but by the time he regained fitness, showed the Kingspan faithful his true quality. A brilliant reader of the game at full-back and in centre, it was no surprise to see Joe Schmidt call on him to fill the void left by Brian O'Driscoll's retirement once he became Irish-qualified.
5. Nick Williams
The first player on this list not to play Test rugby, many wouldn't have expected much from the Kiwi back-rower when he arrived in Belfast after low-key spells with Munster and Aironi. Clearly something about the white jersey suited him and he was transformed at Ravenhill, cementing himself into Mark Anscombe's back-row shortly after arriving. His maiden campaign saw him scoop an end-of-season awards double of the Pro12 Player of the Season and IRUPA Players' Player of the Year. If his first season was his best, his last wasn't far behind and as he departed, few imports had rivalled his popularity. Fans of Cardiff Blues, where he is still playing at 36, seem equally fond of him too.
6. Justin Harrison
Capped 34 times by Australia, Harrison would spent only three years at Ravenhill but remains to this day the last Ulster skipper to get his hands on any silverware, lifting what was then the Celtic League trophy having skippered the side to a dramatic late victory over Ospreys on the final day of the 2006 season. Was superb throughout the last of the cup-winning campaigns here and, while that year was really his peak, that contribution has not been quickly forgotten. Was appointed CEO of Rugby Players Australia last summer.
7. Robbie Kempson
Sprinbgbok Kempson played Test rugby for South Africa on both the loose and tighthead sides of the scrum, replicating the feat at Ulster in the days of 22 man match-day squads and increased versatility in the front-row. He arrived in Ulster in 2002 after an earlier move to bring him to the province was scuppered by injury and his technical nous ensured he was instantly established as one of the scrummagers in the Celtic League. Furthermore, he integral to the culture shift that Alan Solomons instilled after the listless years following the European Cup win. Followed Solomons to Northampton and now is involved with Southern Kings.
8. Matt Sexton
Similarly integral in that cultural shift and lurch towards the modern era was hooker Matt Sexton. The Canterbury hooker had hung up his boots only months prior to arriving in Belfast, aiming to go out on the high at the age of 31 after a triumphant NPC campaign back home but was lured to Ireland by Solomons. Hard as nails, in tandem with Kempson the Ulster scrum became a force to be reckoned with during his spell. Would play three seasons at Ulster, leaving in 2004 before linking up with Solomons again at Southern Kings.
9. John Afoa
Another who is still plugging away elsewhere at the age of 36, Bristol's John Afoa was the pick of a strong bunch of tight-heads to have come under Ulster's employ. A 36-time cap All Black, the prop was essentially pulled from the Kiwi's ongoing World Cup celebrations in 2011 and pressed into immediate action. Was almost faultless in his debut season as he helped Ulster to the Heineken Cup final, although he missed the semi-final through suspension. While his scrummaging was as advertised, his carrying gave another dimension and, although he missed time later in his time, he remained a man for the big occasion. Ultimately it was only with the arrival of Marty Moore that it felt he'd been properly replaced.
10. Charles Piutau
Arguably the most talented of any of Ulster's imports and certainly the most box-office. He arrived in 2016 after a short spell lighting up the Premiership with Wasps. Ulster broke the bank to get the former All Black and in the first of his two seasons in Belfast he was as advertised, leading the way for the side in try-scoring and being named the Pro12 Players' Player of the Year. By the time his second season began, his departure for Bristol had already been confirmed though and he was unfortunate that his two years in Ireland coincided with Ulster missing out on knock-out rugby altogether.
Best of the rest
Ulster managed their imports well for most of this century and, as such, there were plenty of big names on the bubble. Current star Marcell Coetzee is obviously a superb player and needs only time to make the list having been limited to just one full season so far thanks to injury and now the Covid-19 shut-down. One-cappers Paul Steinmetz and Ryan Constable were such reliable presences for the side throughout their tenures while South Africans BJ Botha and Pedrie Wannenburg have the credentials too. The latter pair's compatriots Louis Ludik and Robbie Diack managed to combine for more than 300 Ulster outings. In contrast, Christian Leali'ifano and Stefan Terblanche were here only for a limited time but their spells could certainly be described as short but sweet.