Ulster Rugby get an early vision of what life would be like without Johann Muller
Ulster will get a close-up look at life without their inspirational captain Johann Muller when they square up to old rivals, Munster, tonight at Ravenhill (7.05pm).
The towering South African, whose awesome CV includes having captained the Springboks against New Zealand in world rugby's clash of the Titans, has been ruled out by a leg injury picked up in training.
With the 6ft 7ins lock's Ulster contract expiring in June and no sign of any extension to that date at this stage, speculation is growing that he is to hang up his shirt and instead don his overalls for life on the family farm at Mossel Bay in South Africa's Western Cape.
A few weeks ago when The Belfast Telegraph asked 33-year-old Muller about his plans after his contract expires, he replied: "I don't know yet.
"I said at the beginning of the season that I'm not going to do what I did last year when I signed a contract for this season and then picked up five, six big injuries in a row.
"Myself and David (Humphreys, Ulster's Director of Rugby) have got a really good understanding that I'm going to listen to my body this season. If, when January-February comes I'm feeling good and the injuries have stayed away, then we'll talk again.
"Probably at the end of January or the beginning of February I'll make a decision. At this stage I just want to enjoy my rugby and hopefully keep fit."
That last line is somewhat ironic given the training injury which sees him miss tonight's crucial RaboDirect PRO12 inter-pro battle. As a result, tonight's line-up sees Ireland's Iain Henderson deputise in what could just be a precursor to a more permanent changing of the guard.
In Muller's absence it is the 22-year-old former Belfast Royal Academy student who will be packing down alongside Dan Tuohy opposite Munster, Ireland and Lions pair Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell.
One suspects Ulster's intention had been to introduce Henderson from the bench following a six-week spell in dry dock with a hamstring injury.
That is what is happening in the case of Nick Williams, who, having recovered from his calf problem, is one of tonight's eight replacements.
But with Muller ruled out by injury, Henderson finds himself pitched straight back in, as does fit-again Chris Henry who has not played since suffering a hamstring tear in Ireland's November 9 Aviva Stadium victory over Samoa in the first of the three Guinness Series Tests. Following Saturday's abject surrender to Leinster at the RDS where Ulster went down 19-6, coach Mark Anscombe has made half a dozen changes for tonight's crucial match.
In addition to Henry and Henderson who start at seven and four, Ruan Pienaar, Jared Payne,Tom Court and John Afoa return at scrum-half, full-back, loosehead and tighthead respectively.
Munster have made a dozen changes with O'Callaghan, James Coughlan and Ronan O'Mahony the only survivors from the 15 who started against Connacht last time out.
Keith Earls (bruised shoulder) and JJ Hanrahan (tight groin) are injury-enforced absentees, with the other changes being of the tactical/rotational variety.
The absence of fly-half Hanrahan is unlikely to have caused too many groans of disappointment within the Ulster camp when they heard the Munster line-up, for despite players and coaches continuing to insist that they look forward to facing full-strength opponents the truth of the matter is that they are more than happy to accept any advantage that comes their way.
Hanrahan's unavailability certainly falls into that category, for with a success rate of 91.67% he is the most accurate goal-kicker in this season's PRO12 campaign, having been on target with 13 out of 13 conversions and 20 out of 23 penalties. In contrast Ulster Paddy Jackson's accuracy is 64.29% – four out of 12 conversion attempts and 23 out of 30 penalties.