Stephen Donald remains firm favourite to answer Ulster Rugby’s SOS call

Rory Best with Stephen Donald
Rory Best with Stephen Donald

New Zealander Stephen Donald remains the clear favourite to answer Ulster’s SOS call for an outhalf to cover the second half of the season.

Speculation around who would replace Ulster’s current on-loan flyhalf Christian Leali’ifano when he returns to Australia in a fortnight’s time had been building since pre-Christmas.

Ulster captain Rory Best

Ulster captain Rory Best

And that reached new levels on Saturday evening when Ulster’s operation director, Bryn Cunningham, confirmed the Province had signed an overseas replacement.

Matt Giteau, Quade Cooper and Donald had been among a number of names thought to be on Cunningham’s list.

The 34-year-old Donald will be remembered for kicking the winning penalty in the Rugby World Cup final in 2011 as New Zealand took the honours against France.

He had actually been on a fishing holiday when he received the call to join the squad after injuries to Dan Carter and Colin Slade.

Named on the bench for the final, he came on to kick the winning penalty.

Donald joined Bath in 2011 where he made 22 appearances and scored over 70 points.

He then went to Japan, but returned to The Chiefs.

Donald was not offered a contract for this year’s Super Rugby season - and given the difficulty getting a quality signing at this time of the season, all bets are off that he is the likely arrival in Belfast after the European Champions Cup pool games have concluded.

Ulster have a two-week break after Europe before resuming their Guinness PRO14 campaign.

On Saturday both Cunningham and director of rugby, Les Kiss, would only confirm an overseas player would be arriving.

Yesterday, Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes, who would have been Donald’s former captain while playing , would not elaborate any further.

“No, that’s in Bryn’s department and I think the official thing is there’s nothing to announce just yet,” said Gibbes.

Cunningham had said an announcement was expected to be made this week, but Ulster may wait until after the visit of French side, La Rochelle, in round five of the Champions Cup.

The game at Kingspan Stadium will be Leali’ifano’s last home game since his arrival from Australia on a short-term contract from Brumbies. His last game will be the final pool game at Wasps on Sunday week.

Leali’ifano has added real value to the Ulster ranks, leaving big boots to fill when he returns Down Under.

Ulster captain, Rory Best, accepted Leali’ifano would be a tough act to follow.

“He’s given us some big performances in his time here,” said Best.

“Obviously, for him, it would be nice if finishes his last home game with a victory and a performance.

“He’s one of our experienced international players in a pivotal position. It’s not as much about him leaving but the quality of player, and quality of the person, that he is, he’ll want to leave Ulster in a better place than when he arrived.

“He’s a quality player. We knew that when we signed him. More than his rugby ability but how he is as a person. You hope he’d the kind of person that you thought he’d be with everything he’s come through in his personal life.

He’s been that and then some. That’s the sort of people you want.

“You want people who come in and play well but you want people who are really good in the dressing room and people that you instantly like. He’s 100% been that.”