Ulster are in the hunt to replace departing Leali'ifano, vows Kiss
With Christian Leali'ifano reiterating on Tuesday that he will return to the Brumbies at the end of January, Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss admitted the team will likely once again have to delve into the market for a short-term solution at fly-half.
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Leali'ifano, who will captain the side from inside centre against Benetton on Friday, arrived in the summer to cover the absence of Paddy Jackson from the squad as he awaits trial on a rape charge he denies.
Leai'ifano, meanwhile, has always been due back in his native Australia once the province's Champions Cup pool stages are complete in two months time.
With Ulster's other options for the 10 jersey lacking in experience, operations director Bryn Cunningham will be tasked with exploring the possibility of bringing in an older head until the end of the season.
"Leali'ifano has been immense for us," Kiss said.
"Not only as a player but as a person, his personality, he's been fantastic. He's well accepted in the group and has done a lot of good things for our 10s here, particularly Pete Nelson, learning off him.
"He sits with Brett Herron and Jonny McPhillips regularly and does things to help them out.
"We're actually going to put Pete at 10 this week with Christian at 12. He's very willing to do that and help out in that situation, and he is held in such high regard by myself and my fellow coaches that we're going to hand Christian the captaincy duties this weekend as well. He's been immense around the place.
"But we always knew Christian had to go back at this stage. It was always going to be very difficult to try and turn that one around. So where does that place us with our 10? We will be active to a degree to see what we can do.
"Obviously scenarios are very uncertain where they'll end up. That uncertainty makes it difficult, however that's the reality that we live with.
"We are looking in the market. I have Bryn checking things out for me regularly and we've asked about a number of players just to ensure we don't have inexperience back there because the back-up 10s don't have a lot of experience."
Much like when Leali'ifano was brought in on the eve of the season back in August, it is a far from ideal time to be recruiting quality.
However, with the Japanese season drawing to a close as his deal runs out, Kiss added that it was one area where options may emerge.
"I've had Bryn look at that market, we've looked at the French market just to ensure we're doing due diligence and seeing what's there.
"What we don't want to move with is something that's not right in terms of an experience level but also someone who can bring the requisite qualities that we're after on a number of fronts.
"We play a certain shape, we definitely want players who understand the shape that we play. We're keeping an eye out but it's not easy, it's not the right time of year to try and do a deal somewhere here or there.
"But in the end if it doesn't happen we will back what we have, because we just have to. That's the reality of it.
"There's other uncertainties that we don't know where those will end up, but it's been like that for a while. To work in that space is challenging but that's what it is.
"I've got good people here who have helped around it."
Meanwhile, Kiss praised the attitude of Jared Payne in training, despite the centre's continuing injury struggles.
The Kiwi, whose partner gave birth to the couple's second son last week, has not played since the Lions tour due to what has been described as "cervicogenic headaches".
The 32-year-old has been back in training for weeks, but will need to be declared symptom-free before he is cleared to play.
"What we are doing is trying to make sure the welfare of Jared is foremost," said Kiss.
"The doctors, the specialists from the south and up here are doing what they can to make sure we get the right procedures in place for him.
"The concern is he had an injury to his kidney, a frustrating period, and came back and then his calf started playing up during the Lions.
"He's had a torrid time in terms of just no continuous good news or an injury-free period.
"It's frustrating for him, no doubt, but he's being positive, immense in how he's adding to the training sessions and meetings and all of those things.
"It's not like he's in the corner - he's very active and he is desperate to get it right and I'd be very optimistic to tell you the truth. We're just doing it the right way."
With Ulster also missing those Ireland internationals who will be involved against Argentina on Saturday, joining Payne on the sidelines this week are Marcell Coetzee, Kyle McCall, Wiehahn Herbst, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Luke Marshall, Rodney Ah You, Jean Deysel and Johnny Simpson.
Given the shortage of props, young tight-head Tom O'Toole has been training extensively with the senior panel recently, as has former Leinster underage lock Jack Regan.
• Friends' School qualified for the second round of the Danske Bank Medallion Shield following a 20-0 win over Strabane Academy at Lisburn.
Strabane had a good skill level but it was the power of the home side that proved the better on the day. Friends' led 7-0 at the interval following a Matthew Briggs' try scored by Ewan McCormick.
McCormick later added a penalty before prop forward Ryan Beckett charged down the left before stretching for the line to put his team 15-0 in front.
The visitors defended stoutly for a time, but right at the end home full-back Ewan Barlow gathered a high kick around midway and took off.
He was brought down just short but centre Mark Gilmore was on hand to touch down.