Ulster set to unveil All Black Donald
ULSTER are set to confirm the signing of All Black Stephen Donald until the end of the season as a replacement for fly-half Christian Lealiifano, who returns to Australia later this month.
The 34-year-old, who kicked the winning points in New Zealand's 2011 World Cup final victory over France, finishes his season playing in Japan at the weekend.
Ulster have been searching for a number 10 to replace 19-times capped Lealiifano, who will shortly return to the Brumbies after coming into the squad as cover for the unavailable Paddy Jackson.
Meanwhile, Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes has hit back at claims that his players aren't at the peak of their physical powers ahead of Saturday's make-or-break European Champions Cup clash with La Rochelle at the Kingspan Stadium.
Former Ireland player Donncha O'Callaghan made the assertion in the wake of the province's humiliating 38-7 PRO14 defeat by Leinster at the RDS at the weekend.
The ex-Munster lock, who made 94 appearances for his country and played in two British and Irish Lions tours, certainly felt that Ulster simply couldn't cope with Leinster's superior pace in the six-try loss in Dublin.
“Part of me was looking at them in the Leinster match, I was actually questioning their fitness level,” said the 38-year-old Worcester Warriors captain.
“In the end, I actually had to credit Leinster for it. They just played them at a pace that they couldn't live with.
“I don't think Ulster are unfit but I think the execution of skill under fatigue, they were really poor. They made so many individual errors.”
Gibbes insists that, while there is certainly need for vast improvement going into Saturday's must-win game with La Rochelle, fitness is not an issue.
“I could possibly understand why he perceives that but it's not the reality,” said the New Zealander.
“Our staff work extremely hard in that department to manage and develop and allow guys to play at their highest physical capacity.
“Whether they choose to do that or not, is possibly another issue.
“As an example, we alluded to being second-best on Saturday but I just thought we were two metres behind Leinster every time.
“They were faster than us, quicker than us into position. And we have had to address that. It's not a physical preparation thing, not that at all.
“The assessments from outside the camp, yeah, they are pretty harsh, they are pretty high.
“They [the players] hold themselves to a higher standard than what anyone else says they do. It's not just one thing, it's a combination of factors, I guess.”
Gibbes admits there is plenty to work on during the week leading up to the game with La Rochelle, who lost to Wasps in their last European game after beating Ulster 41-17 in France.
“It certainly is a big occasion. It is exciting to be in round five in Europe, be at home and have so much on the line,” said the 40-year-old.
“It is perhaps a bit disappointing coming into a big occasion like that having to address a few things from Saturday that clearly were not good enough.
“We allowed Leinster to be extremely comfortable with or without the ball and we just looked at where can we apply more pressure on our positions.
“I think there is not (just) one area. We were well beaten. You watched it and it was pretty clear who the second best team was on Saturday.
“That is the reality, there is no hiding from that and now it is just (a case of) take what we can from that, use it as much of it as we can and get as many things right as we can here on Saturday.
“We have just got to use what we went through today in training and springboard and get ourselves and our energy up for what is a game with lots of consequences.
“Look, we know the size of the occasion and the quality of opposition on Saturday, but that's a good thing. It's where we want to be.
“It's good to be in round five and not just hanging in, but genuinely alive and with something tangible as a reward if we work extremely hard.”
With Tommy Bowe (shoulder) sidelined for up to eight weeks, prop Wiehahn Herbst is a doubt for
the game, but his fellow forwards Chris Henry and Kieran Treadwell look set to return to the squad after injury.