Pienaar joins injury list as prop crisis threatens to derail Ulster
Ulster's loss to Leinster on New Year's Eve has ultimately cost them far more than Pro12 points, with four key players, including Ruan Pienaar, picking up injuries at the RDS as they also face a prop crisis ahead of a potentially season-defining run of games.
Pienaar's right knee has ruled him out of tomorrow's league clash away to Scarlets and he will be assessed by specialists this week, with Les Kiss crossing his fingers that the scrum-half will recover in time to face Exeter Chiefs on Sunday week in a must-win Champions Cup encounter.
Paul Marshall will likely deputise for the departing Springbok tomorrow, but should Pienaar fail to regain his fitness for the journey to Sandy Park, Ulster's chances of progressing from Pool 5 - where they lie third - will significantly decrease.
Aside from his tactical nous and leadership, Pienaar is also Ulster's back-up out-half and place-kicker, leaving Kiss alarmingly reliant on the continued wellbeing of Paddy Jackson.
The northern province's front-row resources have been further decimated by the loss of Irish-capped duo Rob Herring (hooker) and Rodney Ah You (tighthead prop), both of whom suffered knee-ligament damage against Leinster and are expected to be unavailable for at least six weeks.
The travails of Herring and Ah You compound the absences of props Wiehahn Herbst and Kyle McCall.
Herbst tore a calf muscle in training and is facing four to six weeks on the sidelines, while McCall, who underwent surgery to repair a right hamstring tear sustained in the Champions Cup loss to Clermont, is likely to be out for up to five months.
Furthermore, prop Ricky Lutton, who can pack down at loose or tighthead, has been ruled out of the trip to Llanelli.
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In such dire circumstances Ulster may do as Connacht did recently with retired Munster prop John Andress, and recruit a short-term replacement to see them through such a difficult period, but the return to fitness of tighthead Ross Kane will offer some relief to Kiss.
Aside from Kane, the only fit props available to Ulster are Callum Black, Andrew Warwick and Jonny Wilson, who has made just one senior appearance
They also must travel to Parc y Scarlets without No 8 Roger Wilson, who injured his knee against Leinster, as well as Ireland winger Craig Gilroy, who suffered an ankle problem during training.
Marcell Coetzee, Peter Nelson, Alan O'Connor, Stuart Olding, Jared Payne and Matthew Rea are all unavailable this week.