Ulster’s director of rugby Les Kiss says it remains unclear when Ireland and Lions centre Jared Payne will be declared fit to return to action.
Payne, 32, has not played since his British & Irish because of headaches.
Kiss told BBC Sport NI that medics have diagnosed that Payne’s ailment is “not concussion-related”.
“It’s with the head and the neck and Jared is getting headaches after hard work,” added Kiss.
“We have to work slowly but surely to get him to a point where he is right again.”
Payne suffering headaches after training
Payne has trained with the Ulster squad over the last two months but on each occasion the recurrence of the headaches has meant he has not been considered for competitive duty.
“It’s certainly frustrating and not ideal for Jared, we’ll do the best we can for him to make sure he is right,” added the Ulster boss.
“We won’t do anything until he has had a week of freedom [from headaches] from his responses after training.
Kiss said Ulster remain “very optimistic about where we’ll end up [with Jared]” but added it was not possible to talk about a likely timeframe for the centre returning to action.
Payne has seen specialists on both sides of the Irish border and Kiss said all the medics have both come to the conclusion that the player’s headaches are “not concussive episodes”.
Lealiifano to return to Brumbies in January
Kiss was speaking after confirmation came through that Australian fly-half Christian Lealiifano will return to the Brumbies in January as planned.
Lealiifano, who has 19 caps for the Wallabies, joined the Irish province on a but there was some speculation last month that he could extend his stay.
However, the 30-year-old dashed those hopes on Tuesday as he spoke to media in the build-up to Friday’s Pro14 home game against Benetton.
“I’m going to head back [to the Brumbies]. The deal from the beginning was to come over on a six-month loan and play some rugby again and hopefully put Ulster in a good position before heading back,” said the Australian international.
Lealiifano said his remaining at Ulster could prevent young talent getting the opportunity to come through in addition to “burning bridges a bit” with the Brumbies.
“It’s been really enjoyable but it would probably be wrong of me to stay on.”
Lengthy Ulster injury list
Kiss revealed that Lealiifano will start at centre on Friday with Peter Nelson handed the number 10 shirt for the visit of the improving Italians.
A lengthening injury list will see front-row trio Kyle McCall, Rodney Ah You and Wiehahn Herbst missing in addition to other forwards Jean Deysel, Chris Henry, Robbie Diack and Johnny Simpson plus centre Luke Marshall.
Kiss is hopeful that Henry’s shoulder injury will only keep him out one week but the others are expected to be out for two to three weeks apart from Simpson, who has undergone hip surgery which could rule him out for up to six weeks.
As a result, Kiss admitted “two to three” of the province’s academy youngsters are in line to feature this weekend.
Benetton have beaten Ospreys, Edinburgh and the Southern Kings so far during the campaign although they have lost their last two games against Edinburgh and champions Scarlets.
Ulster are second in Conference B having won six of their opening eight matches.