Ulster go looking to maintain their red-hot form when they roll out the red carpet for Cardiff Blues in Round 19 of the Guinness PRO12 on Friday night with a play-off place on the line.
The Belfast-based outfit go in search of a seventh successive victory while Cardiff Blues return to league action following their European Challenge Cup exit at the hands of Gloucester on April 1.
What’s at stake? Ulster will be out to simultaneously maintain their place in the play-off positions, with Scarlets just three points behind, whilst also remaining on the coattails of third-placed Ospreys.
They haven’t tasted defeat in the league since they were edged out 16-13 by top-four rivals Scarlets on January 6 but with a tough run-in they know that they cannot afford to drop any points.
Meanwhile, Cardiff’s task will be to arrest their recent rickety form, with Danny Wilson’s side having slipped to successive defeats at the hands of high-flying Leinster and Munster in recent weeks.
The Blues went down by just a single point at the hands of table-toppers Leinster on March 25 but they came unstuck against Gloucester in Europe seven days later as they were beaten 46-26.
Ulster team news: Ireland internationals Rory Best and Paddy Jackson return to the fold to strengthen Ulster, with hooker Best, who will captain the hosts, replacing Rob Herring.
Meanwhile, Jackson starts at fly-half, which leads to Stuart Olding moving to centre and Darren Cave missing out.
Roger Wilson comes into the back row in place of Chris Henry at No.8 while Sean Reidy moves to openside flanker.
Young back-rower Nick Timoney, who is named as a replacement, could make his debut.
Looking forward to having these two back in the squad tomorrow night ✊
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) April 6, 2017
Cardiff Blues team news: Blues have made four changes to the team that were beaten by Gloucester last time out, with exciting young full-back Rhun Williams replacing Matthew Morgan as he makes his first start since February.
Wales international Ellis Jenkins is back in action at blindside flanker, with Josh Navidi moving to No.8 and Nick Williams dropping to the bench on his return to his former club, while Willis Halaholo re-forms a midfield partnership with Rey Lee-Lo.
In Cardiff’s final alteration, Matthew Rees is handed a start at hooker in place of Kristian Dacey.
Talking points: Head coach Neil Doak says that he is fully focussed on guiding Ulster’s bid for silverware, despite his departure at the end of the season.
Doak and forwards coach Allen Clarke will depart in the summer and be replaced by Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel.
“It’s not difficult for me to put that to one side and just focus on what I can do. I suppose when I think about it (Ulster) – it’s not a job per se,” said Doak.
“It’s what I do. I’ve been doing it for 23 years.
“It’s like getting up in the morning at 7 o’clock – it’s just what I do.”
Key Battle: On Friday night, Ulster’s Craig Gilroy will line up against another talented 26-year-old with a penchant for scoring international tries in the form of Blues’ Alex Cuthbert.
Gilroy, who helped himself to a hat-trick in Ireland’s hammering of Italy during the RBS 6 Nations, is one of his team’s major threats and will give Cardiff plenty to think about.
Meanwhile, fellow wing Cuthbert gave a reminder of his capabilities by crossing the whitewash twice in Blues’ European exit at the hands of Gloucester.
The Wales international may well be in the mood to maintain his personal good form.
— Cardiff Blues (@cardiff_blues) April 5, 2017
Key stat: Ulster have not won seven matches in a row since season the 2012-13 season while the Blues have not been victorious in Belfast since April 2010.
Lions contenders: Two contenders for the Lions captaincy will go head-to-head at Kingspan Stadium, with Ulster’s Rory Best coming up against Cardiff’s Sam Warbuton.
Ireland skipper Best will captain the home side and is a strong contender to make Warren Gatland’s squad for this summer’s tour of New Zealand, just like Wales’ 2013 Lions captain Warbuton.
Elsewhere, Best’s Ulster team-mates Iain Henderson and Jared Payne are also two players with Lions ambitions.
One Ulster alumnus has sealed a call-up this week, with former strength and conditioning coach Phil Morrow set to travel with the Lions in that capacity.
Did you know?:
Blues’ only victory on a visit to an Irish province in their last 11 trips was a 24-23 win over Munster in Cork in September.
Top Points Scorer: Ruan Pienarr 100pts. Top Try Scorer: Jacob Stockdale 8.
Top Points Scorer: Steve Shingler 128pts. Top Try Scorer: Tom James 6.
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 27, Ulster won 15, Blues won 12.
At Kingspan Stadium, 7.35pm Live on BBC Sport NI and BBC Wales
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU, 60th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Keith Allen (SRU), Shane Kierans (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: JohnCole (IRFU)
TMO: Stefano Roscini (FIR)
The Guinness PRO12 Final takes place on May 27 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Fans can guarantee their place by booking their tickets via www.ticketmaster.ie
Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final
Rey Lee-Lo struck what could prove to be a decisive blow in the race for the Guinness PRO12 semi-finals, as his double helped Cardiff Blues draw 24-24 at Ulster.
The hosts were looking to go third in the league standings with a win over the mid-table Blues, and made a great start as Paddy Jackson grabbed the game’s opening score, before going ahead again with a penalty try after Sam Warburton had pegged them back.
But while the visitors came out firing after half-time, centre Lee-Lo crossing twice in 13 minutes to send the Blues clear. Ulster were not down and out as Luke Marshall surged through to level ahead of a frantic – but scoreless – final ten minutes.
Both teams were looking to attack at the start of the contest, and after Alex Cuthbert made several powerful carries, Ulster skipper Rory Best was penalised and Gareth Anscombe was able to draw first blood from the tee.
But just two minutes later, the hosts were down the other end of the field and had crossed for the first try of the night – Charles Piutau made the break before Ruan Pienaar found the space behind the Blues defence.
The South African’s kick found his half-back partner Jackson, who gratefully collected the ball and crossed before converting his own try to make it 7-3.
Blaine Scully was forced off with an injury, replaced by Matthew Morgan, but after more back and forth play, Cardiff turned the ball over deep in Ulster territory and piled on the pressure.
And after a Willis Halaholo break, the stage was set for Warburton to crash over from close range on 22 minutes and Anscombe knocked over the conversion shortly after.
Piutau continued to threaten for the hosts, making a searing break from deep inside his own territory into the Blues half, before the Ulstermen won a penalty in front of the posts.
Skipper Rory Best was decisive, and his decision to kick for the corner was vindicated as Ulster rumbled towards the line from the line-out, but the maul was hauled down and referee Ian Davies awarded a penalty try.
Jackson’s routine conversion made it 14-10 with 12 minutes remaining in an already exhilarating half, and the Irish side were in full flow when Stuart Olding sent Jared Payne clean through the defensive line, but a good scramble defence from Cardiff prevented Piutau from scoring.
Another injury blow struck the visitors when try-scorer Warburton limped off, replaced by former Ulster favourite Nick Williams before the break.
But despite that set-back an excellent score from Lee-Lo put the Blues back into the lead; Halaholo dummied his way past the defence to take his side to the five-metre line, and after a penalty was kicked into the corner by Anscombe, his offload set up the centre to score under the posts despite the last-ditch tackle from Piutau.
Anscombe’s radar was unwavering again with the conversion, putting his side three points clear at 17-14, and the Blues’ level did not drop as they continued to pile on the pressure in the Ulster 22.
Ulster levelled the scores when Best pointed to the sticks after a penalty at the breakdown and Jackson struck the ball over, but Cardiff struck a killer blow on the hour mark.
It was Lee-Lo again who touched down, beating Olding on the outside before stepping the final defender, and the flawless Anscombe made it 24-17 with the conversion.
Ulster were not going to lie down however, and the game was set for a grandstand final ten minutes when Marshall latched on to Jackson’s offload to cut inside and score – Jackson levelling the clash up with the extras.
The home crowd were bouncing and sensed a match-winning score, but despite the end-to-end finish both defences held firm.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €35 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie.
Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final