Ulster to announce short-term signing of All Black Stephen Donald
World Cup winner to fill void at out-half when Leali’ifano returns to Australia
Stephen Donald: The New Zealander should be available to hook up with Ulster when the Guinness Pro14 campaign resumes in February. Photograph:Photosport/Bruce Lim/Inpho
Ulster are set to announce the short-term signing of All Black World Cup winner Stephen Donald to fill the void at out-half when Christian Leali’ifano returns to Australia towards the end of the month.
Donald (34), who landed the winning kick to secure New Zealand the 2011 World Cup, is currently playing in Japan with Tokyo-based Toshiba Brave Lupus, though their season is poised to end. The New Zealander should be available to hook up with Ulster when the Guinness Pro14 campaign resumes in February, and will be their frontline out-half for the remainder of the season.
It is believed that Donald’s signing will be officially confirmed either over the next few days or early next week.
Leali’ifano – who is set to play his final home game for Ulster on Saturday in the crunch European Champions cup tie with La Rochelle – will return to the Brumbies for their Super Rugby campaign after joining the northern province at the start of the season on a short-term deal following the unavailability of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. who are facing rape charges.
There had been fevered speculation over who might be joining Ulster after Leali’ifano takes his leave following the province’s final European pool game at Wasps, but it is now believed that Donald will be playing in the number 10 shirt come next month.
When Gibbes was asked to confirm that Donald is on his way, he stated: “No, that’s in Bryn’s [Cunningham, operations director] department, and I think the official thing is there’s nothing to announce just yet.
“They’ll get on top of that when they can. I’ve kind of been consumed myself with putting my energy into what will actually make a difference on Saturday, [when Ulster play La Rochelle], so I think I’ll just leave that one for Bryn,” Gibbes added.
The emergence of Donald’s apparent signing – though Ulster refused to confirm or deny that the All Black will be on their books – may well prove a welcome distraction for an increasingly beleaguered-looking Les Kiss, but this will be only temporary for the province’s director of rugby if they fail to overcome the French side at the Kingspan on Saturday afternoon.
Despite their recent heavy Pro14 defeats at both Connacht and Leinster, Ulster are still in with a chance of topping their group in the Champions Cup, and are only two points adrift of Pool One leaders La Rochelle.
But beating the French side at home is essential to helping Ulster not only to stay in control of their own destiny in the race for the last eight – somewhere they have not been since 2014 – but also bring some much-needed belief and momentum back to a stuttering season which has put Kiss’s tenure under huge pressure.
Gibbes admitted that shaking off last Saturday’s humiliating 38-7 reverse to Leinster at the RDS was also crucial to Ulster fronting up on Saturday.
On the line
“It is exciting to be in round five in Europe, be at home, and have so much on the line. But it is perhaps a bit disappointing [that we’re] coming into a big occasion like that having to address a few things from last Saturday that clearly were not good enough.
“We were well beaten. That is the reality, there is no hiding from that, and now it is just take what we can from that and use it as much as we can, and get as many things right as we can here on Saturday.”
Meanwhile, Jared Payne has been deregistered from Ulster’s Champions Cup squad and replaced by out-half Johnny McPhillips. Payne has not played since last summer’s British and Irish Lions tour after suffering headaches and speculation is growing that the 32-year-old may not feature at all this season.