Five weeks since the last Guinness Pro12 game at the Arms Park, Cardiff are back this weekend as they welcome Ulster in a crucial clash to kick off December. With both teams currently suffering a drop in form it is a huge fixture in terms of staying in touch with the league’s top six.
Ulster themselves arrive on the back of just one win in the last five games, but haven’t played since the 4th November due to the Autumn Internationals and a postponement of last week’s game at home to Zebre thanks to a frozen pitch.
Some may say they will be fresh and ready for action, but after four weeks without a match there is bound to be some rust to shake off for those players not involved with Ireland. During their poor form and absence they have slipped down to sixth, just a point and a place above Cardiff, leaving them behind Irish rivals Leinster and Munster.
After last season’s run to the semi-finals, where they finished just four points off top spot in the regular season, they have added Charles Piutau from Wasps and managed to retain the large majority of their squad. Injuries though have struck them down this season, and with Nick Williams coming to Cardiff while his replacement Marcell Coetzee picked up a serious injury, they’ve somewhat struggled for go-forward ball.
During that run to the play-offs, where they were beaten for eventual losing finalists Leinster, we actually managed to gain as many league points as them in our head-to-head encounters. Despite Ulster gaining a bonus point win at Ravenhill we scraped a losing bonus point with a 24-17 scoreline thanks to a late Rhys Patchell penalty, before the fly-half’s 18 points helped us to a 23-13 win at home.
And if we were evenly matched in our games last season, we’ve been the same in our general form this season as they started the season with five wins, before slipping into this recent run of one win in five covering the Pro12 and Europe. Now we are left in the situation where we are both fighting to save play-off hopes, and even staying in touch with the top six.
Cardiff last week took a hit to their hopes as a loss in Connacht saw us fall five points off fourth, which was particularly frustrating as we really should have won the game. A ridiculous amount of mistakes cost us a very winnable match, but there were positives to take as we looked dangerous on attacks where the ball wasn’t dropped and the defensive was vastly improved on previous games.
Hopefully we’ve had a week of handling work and set piece training, particularly in the lineout, as it let us down badly. We were close to getting it right and returning to that early season form, and as long as we tweak our game correctly, without any detriment to other areas, I’m confident of a good result, as the players should be too.
Danny Wilson has certainly gone all out for the win by naming what I would say is the strongest available side to him at the moment. Internationals Gethin Jenkins, Sam Warburton and Lloyd Williams all return to the side , with Rhys Gill and Tomos Williams dropping to the bench while James Down misses out altogether. Josh Turnbull moves to lock to accommodate Warburton, and finally in the forwards Fa’ao Filise swaps places with Scott Andrews.
The only other change in the backs is an enforced swap at full-back due to Dan Fish’s injury, with Blaine Scully switching to 15 and Alex Cuthbert taking the starting berth on the right wing. An exciting backline as Cuthy links up properly with Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo for the first time.
On the bench we see the Matthew’s of Rees and Morgan providing cover at the front and back of the pitch, while Jarrad Hoeata and Macauley Cook are able to complete a fully senior bench for the first time in a few weeks. The big news amongst the replacements though is that the living legend himself takes a seat, King Nicholas Robinson. This means that, along with the King of Tonga, we have two royals amongst the matchday 23.
The obvious absence from the squad is Gareth Anscombe who has suffered a groin injury requiring minor surgery. The length of absence is estimated at around 6-8 weeks so hopefully he should be back around the end of January, the same time as Jarrod Evans. In the meantime, all hail King Nicky!
Cardiff team: Blaine Scully, Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Tom James, Steve Shingler, Lloyd Williams; Gethin Jenkins (c), Kristian Dacey, Taufa’ao Filise, George Earle, Josh Turnbull, Ellis Jenkins, Sam Warburton, Josh Navidi
Replacements: Matthew Rees, Rhys Gill, Scott Andrews, Jarrad Hoeata, Macauley Cook, Tomos Williams, Nicky Robinson, Matthew Morgan
Ulster team: Charles Piutau, Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy, Brett Herron, Ruan Pienaar; Kyle McCall, Rob Herring (c), Wiebahn Herbst, Peter Browne, Franco van der Merwe, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Sean Reidy
Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell, Clive Ross, Paul Marshall, Louis Ludik, Darren Cave
With a backline like Ulster’s it’s going to be a big defensive shift in store on Saturday evening, but I’m confident that with our back row we can dominate in the forwards and at the breakdown allowing our backs to play freely and hopefully keep possession in hand a bit more. With improvements to our set piece likely all we require is a big shift from our ball carriers to win the battle of the forwards.
Starting quickly will be key, getting plenty of points on the board before Ulster are able to shake off their rustiness and give our players the confidence to go and play. If we do that the game is ours to lose once again, and this week we hopefully won’t throw it away. Let’s get a big crowd behind the boys for a Saturday afternoon kick-off and fingers crossed, we’ll be rewarded with a home win. Come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff record v Ulster: W 11 L 15
Cardiff form: WWLWL (not including Anglo-Welsh)
Ulster form: LLWLL
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (7)
Ulster top try scorer: Robert Lyttle (3)
Cardiff top points scorer: Steve Shingler (66)
Ulster top points scorer: Paddy Jackson (47)
Andrew Brace (IRFU) – The Canton-born former Cardiff Blues community development officer comes back to CAP for his fifth game involving us. Four wins and a close loss away at Harlequins so far sees us doing well, while Brace this season has refereed a vast majority of home wins.