Ulster rocked by Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble injury blow
Ulster's already troubled season has now been shaken by yet more turbulence with key players Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble sidelined with injuries sustained playing in Ireland’s victory over Australia.
Payne’s season for both Ulster and Ireland looks close to being in tatters due to the worrying kidney injury he picked up in the first half against the Wallabies which ensured that the Kiwi failed to emerge for the second 40 minutes.
The issue has now ruled him out for at least three months while Trimble has a tendon problem in his foot and will be missing for a fortnight.
A vital playmaker for both Les Kiss and Joe Schmidt, Payne was hospitalised in Dublin for several days after last Saturday’s final game of Ireland’s historic autumn series.
The 31-year-old will not be able to play again until March though he might still not be deemed sufficiently recovered by then to take contact on the injured kidney.
It means that Kiss will be shorn of one of his key personnel just as the campaign hits a critical time, both in terms of Ulster's European ambitions - had Payne been fit he would have featured next week against Clermont but now will definitely not be seen again in European action unless Ulster reach the knockout stages - and their primary intentions of staying in contention to make the PRO12's top four.
Payne, who was in great form for Ireland over the autumn, also faces a race against time to have any involvement in the Six Nations and is definitely ruled out of Ireland's first three games, against Scotland, Italy and France, which are due to be played in February.
The player, who can operate with ease at either centre or full-back, could possibly come into contention for the last two Six Nations Tests in Wales and what is widely expected to be the showdown for the title with England in Dublin on March 18.
However, Payne's latest injury at Test level opens the way for Schmidt to potentially invest heavily in the Robbie Henshaw-Garry Ringrose centre partnership which has already been tipped to be Ireland's starting midfield further down the line.
Even so, the loss of Payne for Ireland will be considered a serious blow for Schmidt and, indeed, the 19-times capped player was described at the weekend by Tony Ward as the glue that holds the national side together through his excellent defensive reads and ball distribution.
More realistically, Payne might next be seen playing when togging out for Ulster with the away game against the Dragons at the end of March perhaps being the likely occasion.
The double blow for Ulster has also ruled Trimble out of at least the first of the pivotal back-to-back European clashes with Clermont at the Kingspan on Saturday week - as with all the province's Ireland front-liners he was never going to be available this weekend in Cardiff - and could yet see the province's joint skipper miss the return game should there be any setbacks to his recovery.
Meanwhile, there was better news for Leinster as it was confirmed that Rob Kearney was removed early from last weekend's Test with Australia as a mere precaution and is fit to play again when required.
The situation regarding Payne and Trimble comes as Ulster head into tomorrow's return to PRO12 action in Cardiff after having lost three straight league games while not having actually played for four weeks following last Friday's cancellation of their home match with Zebre due to a frozen pitch.
The province are hoping to have Stuart McCloskey and Rodney Ah You on board for what appears a must-win game for them to not only steady the ship in the league but also to return to Europe for the Clermont double-header.
Meanwhile, a new season kicks off today for the Ireland Sevens side as they look to hit the ground running on the opening day of the Dubai 7s.
Ireland begin their tournament against a German development side before a meeting with Zambia and finally against Georgia.
IRELAND SEVENS SQUAD: David Busby, Fionn Carr, Jordan Conroy, Shane Daly, Terry Kennedy, Conor Lowndes, Harry McNulty, Jimmy O'Brien, Luke O'Dea, John O'Donnell, Nick Timoney, Steve Toal-Lennon.