Ulster’s young international star Iain Henderson has been ruled out for the remainder of the season with a hamstring tear.
The 23-year-old lock, who was being touted as Paul O’Connell’s successor, picked up the injury in the Pro12 clash against Edinburgh in December.
Ulster officials were hopeful of a quick return to action but yesterday confirmed the problem is more serious than originally thought.
“It looks like Iain will be out for the remainder of the season,” Ulster coach Neil Doak confirmed yesterday.
“It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.”
Doak must plan without Henderson for a trio of crucial European fixtures as they bid to keep alive hopes of progressing from Pool 1.
Ulster travel to France this weekend for a rescheduled clash with Oyonnax — who they play in Belfast in a fortnight.
In between is a difficult away clash against Saracens.
“It’s a long season, and we’ve played a lot of rugby so far. This game when it was originally called off threw a bit of a spanner in the works with regards to planning and selections, and obviously player management to keeping players fresh and fit,” said Doak.
“We’ve obviously picked up a few bumps and bruises along the way and that puts a bit stress on us.
“The guys had a day or two off this week and then it was back into focusing on the game at the weekend.
“After that, we will take stock after Sunday’s game and then move onto the Saracens trip.
“Overall, I think the players are more than capable of coping with that.
“The change of date has caused a few issues, but at this stage of the season, even though we have played a lot of rugby, there is still a lot more to play, and with that in mind, we have to manage our players well.”
Forwards coach Allen Clarke said Ulster must get over their defeat to Munster last week and focus on Oyonnax.
“We are still in a reasonably good position, and within reach of the top four at present.
“But in the game against Munster, we made too many unforced and uncharacteristic errors.
“We had good field position at times in the first half, but did not retain possession and coughed it up all too easily.
“Our last two performances have got us back on track again in Europe and overall we are in a competitive position within all the pools now and still looking for qualification.
“There is great excitement going into this game on Sunday and trying to get rid of the frustration of last Saturday.”
Meanwhile, Tommy Bowe was due to have the wire cage removed from his injured right knee which required surgery following the game against Argentina in the World Cup.
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