Connacht's injury crisis has worsened after coach Pat Lam confirmed on Thursday that centre Bundee Aki will be out for approximately two months with an ankle injury.
The 26-year-old has been struggling with the ongoing issue for a while and will finally undergo surgery before Christmas, but is expected to miss the next eight weeks.
Aki, who was named Pro12 Players' Player of the Season last term, adds to Connacht's lengthy injury list and is a blow to their title defence.
Connacht face rivals Ulster in the Pro12 on Friday and, although Lam acknowledged the past week had been among his toughest at the club, he is relishing the opportunity to give others a chance in the team.
"This week has probably been the most challenging I've had at Connacht with all the injuries, sickness and the group only coming together yesterday," said Lam.
Bundee Aki will undergo surgery this week for an ongoing ankle injury and will return in mid-February. pic.twitter.com/9wNXH8rgL4-- Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) December 22, 2016
"Losing both Bundee and Conor [Carey] to long-term injuries is a big blow especially with our injury crisis at prop and in midfield. With 21 injuries in our squad, it's an opportunity for the next player still standing to come in and nail his role in our structures and systems.
"With the named squad not even training once together this week, there has been a huge emphasis once again on the classroom learning and mental preparation.
"I was really proud of the boys with the work they put in last week [for a 20-18 European Champions Cup victory over Wasps] and the character they showed in adversity to grind out a big win.
"We'll be looking for the same again this Friday night, albeit in a much tougher environment at a sold-out Kingspan Stadium and against a quality side like Ulster.
"We know we don't have a good record up in Belfast but that just means this is a huge opportunity for us to create something special as a group. We're really looking forward to the challenge."