STEPHEN FERRIS' season is in danger of being wiped out after it was confirmed he has suffered a setback in his rehab from his latest injury.
The Ulster and Ireland flanker underwent surgery in December to repair ankle tendon damage.
It had been hoped he would return to fitness in time to play some part in Ireland's Six Nations championship, with the game against Italy in Rome on March 16 tentatively earmarked as a possible target for the 27-year-old.
However, the flanker is now facing the possibility of having to undergo further surgery on his ankle after it was ascertained there are issues with his recovery. Ferris will visit a specialist next week, when the next step in his recovery will be determined.
This is a huge blow to Ulster, who had been planning on having Ferris back well in advance of their Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Saracens in April. Indeed, on Tuesday Ulster reaffirmed that Ferris was on schedule to return to playing duty within three weeks.
It has, however, subsequently emerged that possibility was ruled out later on Tuesday when Ferris consulted with IRFU medical staff. Ulster's statement highlights that "some minor issues remain" after December's surgery.
It's a massive blow to a player who has suffered badly with injuries over the past number of seasons and a huge setback to his hopes of being included in Warren Gatland's Lions squad for the summer tour to Australia.
The 27-year-old has played just three times this season. He was part of the Lions tour to South Africa in 2009 and scored in the warm-up game against Golden Lions on June 3.
But he was forced to return home six days later after he tore the medial ligament in his right knee during a training session.
A more detailed assessment of Ferris' latest setback and a new time-line on a possible return should be forthcoming next week.