This Saturday sees the last Guinness Pro14 regular season game take place at the Cardiff Arms Park for this campaign, as Ulster visit the capital after Ireland’s Grand Slam triumph last week.
The fourth home game in five weeks for Cardiff Blues comes amid the backdrop of a six-game winning streak in the Pro14 and European Challenge Cup, stretching back to early January. Champions Cup qualification is now well within our sights, and the play-offs aren’t a million miles away.
Once again we welcome a side to CAP who would technically be above us in an amalgamated Pro14 table, as Ulster currently sit fourth in Conference B on 46 points, four more than us and with a game-in-hand. However, they have not been without their troubles this season.
A tumultuous period off the field has seen Director of Rugby Les Kiss leave halfway through the season, and head coach Jono Gibbes announce he too will depart in the summer. Supporter discontentment with the Province’s leadership has grown, while Paddy Jackson’s court case has brought unwanted attention.
One win in the last four games has not been ideal form, however, following the postponement of their game against Glasgow, the side from Northern Ireland have now had exactly a month off. They will be hoping that this results in previous performances being put to the side, and a fresh approach being taking to the last fixture block of the season.
There will also be a boost to come from Ireland’s Six Nations campaign, as the national side won just their third ever Grand Slam with victory over England last week, and the fact that Ulster beat Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park last season. A 22-35 scoreline marring Nicky Robinson’s homecoming game.
Despite the Six Nations only finishing last week, Ulster have been able to call on two members of the victorious Irish side, as British and Irish Lion Iain Henderson starts at blindside flanker, while player of the tournament Jacob Stockdale is named on the wing.
It’s almost an all-international backline for the visitors, as All Black Charles Piutau comes back into the side alongside Irish caps Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Stu McCloskey and John Cooney. Only young fly-half Johnny McPhillips is currently uncapped.
Up front Alan O’Connor captains the side from lock, where he is joined by young talent Kieran Treadwell. Experienced Ulstermen Clive Ross and Rob Herring are alos named, while academy number eight Nick Timoney is picked at the back of the scrum.
Amongst a largely inexperienced bench there is space for South African full-back Louis Ludik, who has made a total of 84 Super Rugby appearances between the Lions and Sharks.
Ulster Rugby: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale; 10 Johnny McPhillips, 9 John Cooney; 1 Andrew Warwick, 2 Rob Herring, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 4 Alan O’Connor (c), 5 Kieran Treadwell, 6 Iain Henderson, 7 C Ross, 8 N Timoney
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Callum Black, 18 Ross Kane, 19 Matthew Dalton, 20 Matthew Rea, 21 Dave Shanahan, 22 Peter Nelson, 23 Louis Ludik
Danny Wilson, meanwhile, has made seven changes to the Cardiff Blues side which beat Benetton last week.
Up front there is a return to fitness for Matthew Rees, who joins Scott Andrews alongside Gethin Jenkins. Behind them Seb Davies and Ellis Jenkins properly return from the Team Wales setup to start, with Josh Turnbull shifting to flanker. Macauley Cook drops to the bench, while Olly Robinson misses out with injury.
Tomos Williams is also back in the starting XV after the Six Nations ended, as Rey Lee-Lo renews his partnership with Willis Halaholo outside him, and Blaine Scully replaces the injured Aled Summerhill in the back three.
Garyn Smith drops to the bench after six straight starts, where he is joined by Dillon Lewis, who has missed the last two games. Ben Murphy could make his Pro14 debut after stepping up to the Cardiff Blues setup from Merthyr.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Blaine Scully, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Gethin Jenkins (c), Matthew Rees, Scott Andrews, George Earle, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams
Replacements: Kristian Dacey, Rhys Gill, Dillon Lewis, Ben Murphy, Macauley Cook, Lloyd Williams, Steve Shingler, Garyn Smith
This is quite possibly the biggest game of the season so far, in terms of the effect it could have on the rest of the campaign.
A win on Saturday will go a long way to putting pressure on Cheetahs for the final play-off spot, pushing clear of Connacht and Ospreys chasing us for the automatic Champions Cup qualification, and building the momentum ahead of next weekend’s Challenge Cup quarter-final away to Edinburgh.
It won’t be easy against a wounded Ulster however, and as the wins continue, so does the pressure. It will be interesting to see how the players react to the increasing coverage of the current winning streak.
If more motivation were needed though, it can come in the form of this being possibly the last game at the Arms Park for some players, as well as Danny Wilson and Matt Sherratt. They deserve a great send off for the work they have done at Cardiff Blues, and hopefully a strong win will offer them just that.
Make sure you get down to CAP for what promises to be a superb afternoon of rugby, and join the support of the in-form team in Wales. Come on Cardiff!
Cardiff Blues form: WWWWW
Ulster form: WLWLL
Cardiff Blues top try scorers: Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane (5)
Ulster top try scorer: Craig Gilroy (9)
Cardiff Blues top points scorer: Jarrod Evans (119)
Ulster top points scorer: John Cooney (161)
Mike Adamson (SCO) – The former Scotland 7s international has refereed Cardiff Blues twice, both at the Arms Park. A Challenge Cup win over Bristol was followed by a league defeat to Munster.