IRELAND looks set to lose another prized asset overseas, with Stephen Ferris on the verge of joining a Japanese club next season.
However, like Jonny Sexton, who is joining Racing Metro in the summer, the blindside flanker will still be picked by Ireland if he can prove his form and fitness – as long as his club contract allows it.
The Ulster and Lions star looks set to turn down the IRFU's 'pay for play' contract offer and embark into the unknown. It is expected he will initially move for one year.
Reports emerged two weeks ago linking the back-row to a move abroad and, while Japan was mooted, he was also attracting interest from Super Rugby and France.
Ferris has featured just four times this season for Ulster and has not played for Ireland since St Patrick's Day last year after a series of knee and ankle injuries.
Following his latest surgery he sought advice as to whether his career could continue and was given the green light.
As a result, he was being offered a contract extension that was weighted heavily towards his ability to play games, but the offer from Japan appears to have won out.
Ferris would follow in the footsteps of Brad Thorn, Shane Williams, Jaque Fourie, Sonny Bill Williams and George Smith by playing in the Japanese league, which offers lucrative deals to high-profile players to play in their shortened, 13-game season as the country prepares to host the 2019 World Cup.
Fourie reportedly earns more than €1m for playing for Kobe Steelers, while Williams and Smith collected significant sums for short-term deals.
Sources close to the deal say that a Japanese move has become a "viable option" for Ferris and, while the deal is not yet finalised, the likelihood is that the flanker will leave his home province after eight seasons of senior rugby.
Ulster admit they are aware that they could lose their talisman, but are hamstrung as the player is centrally contracted by the Union.