The final game of this Irish away quartet is upon us, and it takes Cardiff to Ravenhill to take on Ulster in the fifth overall game of the season. With only two points from our travels across the Irish Sea thus far, there’s a lot of pressure heading into this final game before coming home to the Cardiff Arms Park.
It cannot be said that the team have not endeavoured to increase our points tally so far however. A last gasp effort gained the points we have so far from Connacht, while I slightly dodgy referee decision didn’t help at Leinster, and some wayward kicks off the tee at Munster affected progress. Despite that though, only a win on Friday night would get us up to at least six points, that being the total I feel we need from the Irish Provinces if challenging for a Champions Cup spot is a real possibility.
Ravenhill, however, has not been a happy hunting ground at all for Cardiff in recent years. You’d have to go back to April 2010 for the last time we won in Belfast, when Casey Laulala, Xavier Rush and Dafydd Hewitt scored in a 24-33 win. Only Gethin Jenkins, Sam Warburton, Scott Andrews and Tom James remain Blues from that squad, and James and Jenkins have both left and returned in the intervening period. Five attempts later we return to Northern Ireland to try to put an end to that run.
Ulster themselves have had a mixed start to the season, a somewhat Jekyll and Hyde opening. Two losses on the road in Llanelli and last week in Edinburgh have separated dominant home wins, 28-6 over Ospreys and 48-7 over Treviso. Those points hauls at home will mean our defence has to be on top form this weekend, along with the whole team. Now is the time to turn all the battling performances into winning ones, and bring all the impressive aspects of the last few weeks together, get some points under the belt before coming home.
Team news-wise, there’s a few extra injuries to add to an ever growing list. Kristian Dacey, Ellis Jenkins, Gavin Evans and Manoa Vosawai join Jarrad Hoeata and Tom James in the treatment room, while Gareth Anscombe requires ankle surgery after a recurrence of the injury that caused him to miss out on Wales’ original 31-man World Cup squad. The other World Cup returnees, Sam Warburton, Gethin Jenkins, Lloyd Williams and Alex Cuthbert aren’t included as Danny Wilson gives them the same time to recover Blaine Scully and Rey Lee-Lo are getting following a long summer.
In terms of players actually involved, there’s a few first match day squad appearances of the season. Cam Dolan starts at blindside flanker as he makes his debut following a World Cup restricted to bench duties with USA. Meanwhile, Adam Thomas replaces Gavin Evans at inside centre, while Chris Dicomidis is called to the bench. Also on the bench is Wales U20 outside-half Jarrod Evans who could be in line to make his Pro12 debut, as Wilson continues to blood a few youngsters early in his reign. The other big news is the return of Josh Navidi and Aled Summerhill from injuries that caused them to miss the Munster game.
Team vs Ulster: Backs: Dan Fish, Richard Smith, Tommy Isaacs, Adam Thomas, Aled Summerhill Rhys Patchell, Tavis Knoyle.
Forwards: Josh Navidi (c), Josh Turnbull, Cam Dolan, James Down, Lou Reed, Craig Mithcell, Matthew Rees, Sam Hobbs.
Subs: Garyn Smith, Jarrod Evans, Lewis Jones, Macauley Cook, Chris Dicomidis, Tau Filise, Thomas Davies, Ethan Lewis.
Cardiff record vs Ulster: Won 10 Lost 14
Cardiff Form: WLLL Ulster Form: WLWL
Cardiff top points scorer: Rhys Patchell (53)
Ulster top points scorer: Stu McCloskey (24)
Cardiff top try scorer: Josh Turnbull (4)
Ulster top try scorers: Sean Reidy (2), Craig Gilroy (2)
Ben Whitehouse (WRU) – God help us all! Also, four away games in Ireland, four Welsh referees. Farcical doesn’t quite cover it.