Ulster Rugby welcome Cardiff Blues in a cross-Conference, mid-table match-up as both sides look to bounce back from defeats in Round 10 on Saturday evening.
It’s a fantastic opportunity for both teams to push their way up their respective Conference tables in a highly-anticipated contest in front of a raucous crowd at the Kingspan Stadium at 3pm.
What’s at stake?
The team from the Welsh capital travels to the Northern Irish capital and they look well-matched opponents, having drawn 24-24 the last time this fixture was played in Belfast, in April 2017.
Dave Shanahan and Jonny Stewart both scored tries in Ulster’s 29-12 defeat to Scarlets in the last round, a defeat which means Scarlets leapfrogged Ulster into second in Conference B.
Meanwhile, Cardiff lost out to Glasgow Warriors 40-15 last time out, with Jarrod Evans and Kristian Dacey touching down, leaving the Blues fifth in Conference A – seven points off Munster in second.
They will also be looking to return to winning ways before back-to-back European Champions Cup matches against reigning Premiership champions Saracens.
Team news (Ulster):
Rob Herring will make his 150th appearance for Ulster after being named ahead of returning international and club captain Rory Best at hooker.
Jordi Murphy, John Cooney and Stuart McCloskey start after international involvement in Ireland’s Autumn International series, with Best and Jacob Stockdale making the bench.
Versatile South African back Louis Ludik makes his second appearance after a six-month absence due to a hamstring injury on the left wing.
Youth products James Hume and Michael Lowry retain their places at outside-centre and full-back, respectively.
Team news (Cardiff):
Internationals Dillon Lewis and Tomos Williams return to the squad after playing their part in Wales’ first-ever autumn series clean-sweep.
Despite the absence of talismanic captain Ellis Jenkins, the back-row looks strong, with ex-Ulster Nick Williams flanked by Guinness PRO14 turnover leader Olly Robinson and Samu Manoa, who is making his first start since his summer move from Toulon.
Samoan international Rey Lee-Lo, leading Cardiff’s try-scoring charts with five, returns in midfield alongside Harri Millard, 22, who makes his first ever start after coming off the bench against Glasgow to top the Round 8 charts for defenders beaten with seven.
Six changes, as a quartet of international stars return to the matchday squad for the trip to Belfast.
— Cardiff Blues (@cardiff_blues) November 30, 2018
Cardiff head coach John Mulvihill emphasised the need for leaders on the pitch after last week’s loss to Glasgow Warriors. He said: “Our on-field leadership needs to step up this week.
“Ulster will be a tough test. We’ll be desperate to stay in-touch with everyone and over-take teams during the festive period.”
Ulster captain Rory Best, who captained Ireland to victory against the All Blacks, added: “It’s going to be a massive challenge, but it’s one where we roll the sleeves up, and one we look forward to.”
Cardiff back-rower Josh Turnbull said: “Our backs are against the wall again now and we need to start picking results up quickly.
“We need to look to bounce back and we’ll have a tough look at ourselves before wiping the slate clean ahead of Ulster.”
Key battle: John Cooney vs Lloyd Williams
John Cooney replaces Ulster’s top try-scorer Dave Shanahan at scrum-half.
Cooney leads Ulster’s points-scoring so far this season with 49, despite being out of the side for six weeks through a combination of injury and international duty.
Lloyd Williams, the leading Cardiff appearance-maker in the current squad, retains his place as captain.
Picked ahead of returning international Tomos Williams, can he balance leading the side with controlling Cooney’s electric running lines?
TEAM NEWS 📋 | Here is your Ulster team to take on Cardiff Blues tomorrow. What are your thoughts? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/HzBmD2ZsXg
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) November 30, 2018
Key fact: It’s often been tight between the two teams – in 29 Guinness PRO14 games, Ulster have won 15, and Cardiff 13. The last three encounters between the two sides have been evenly split with one win apiece, plus a draw.
Did you know? Only one Welsh team has won at Kingspan Stadium since February 2013: Scarlets by a single point in February 2016.
Ulster: Michael Lowry; Henry Speight, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Louis Ludik; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor (C), Kieran Treadwell, Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee.
Replacements: Rory Best, Eric O’Sullivan, Ross Kane, Ian Nagle, Nick Timoney, Dave Shanahan, Johnny McPhillips, Jacob Stockdale.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan; Aled Summerhill, Harri Millard, Rey Lee-Lo, Jason Harries; Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams (C); Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey, Scott Andrews, Seb Davies, Josh Turnbull, Samu Manoa, Olly Robinson, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Liam Belcher, Rhys Carre, Dillon Lewis, George Earle, James Down, Tomos Williams, Steven Shingler, Garyn Smith.
TV: Live on eir sport 2 and Premier Sports 1
Referee: Stuart Berry (SARU)
Assistant referees: Nigel Correll and Paul Haycock (both IRFU)
Citing commissioner: Eugene Ryan (IRFU)
TMO: Leo Colgan (IRFU)
John Cooney delivered the telling blows on his return from international duty as Ulster bounced back from their defeat against Scarlets with a hard-fought win over Cardiff Blues.
The Ulstermen had lost only once in Belfast since February, but they came very close to suffering another defeat at Kingspan as the visitors took a first half lead.
Tries from Matthew Morgan and Kristian Dacey had put the Blues in front at the interval, with Ulster responding with their only touch down through Kieran Treadwell.
But after playing a role in Ireland’s impressive Autumn International series, Cooney proved the difference in an industrious second half as his two penalties secured a narrow victory.
Ulster were the first to get on the scoreboard when Cooney nailed a 40m penalty on his comeback to the side after Olly Robinson was pinged at the breakdown.
Blues responded with a sustained period of pressure, which eventually paid dividends on ten minutes when the visitors grabbed the first try from a smart lineout move.
Nick Williams provided the initial carry before Samu Manoa took the ball within a few metres of the line, with Blaine Scully the next to try his luck only to be met by the Ulster defence.
Williams then spun it wide to Jarrod Evans and he offloaded to Morgan, who was able to burrow over in the corner, with Evans pushing the conversion wide of the posts.
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) December 1, 2018
Their lead did not last long, though, with Ulster replying almost immediately. A quick tap penalty from Stuart McCloskey set up Treadwell, who knocked the ball forward with his knee before gathering and dotting down.
A Cooney conversion extended Ulster’s lead to 10-5, but a compelling opening 20 minutes ended with a second try for the Blues as another well-worked lineout move delivered the goods.
This time, four backs added their weight to the driving maul and just as it began to creep near the whitewash, Dacey broke off on his own and powered over the line.
Evans made no mistake with the conversion and a tenacious defensive effort ensured Cardiff took a narrow 12-10 lead into the break, having repelled a couple of late moves from the Ulster attack.
A scrappy start to second half saw Blues have the better of the play, but the game was turned on its head on 55 minutes when Seb Davies was sent to the bin for a late hit on Ian Kane.
It was not long before Ulster capitalised on the extra man, with the hosts winning a penalty through a powerful driving maul that Cooney chipped over for a simple three points.
Morgan continued to present a danger to the Ulster defence, scything through and offloading to replacement scrum-half Tomos Williams, but the move ultimately broke down.
The Blues then proved their own worst enemy as they lost their own lineout to give Ulster ball just five metres out, with the home side coming close to touching down through Ian Nagle.
Williams was then penalised for offside, presenting Cooney with another penalty opportunity, one he welcomed with open arms as he extended Ulster’s lead to 16-12.
The Blues attempted to fight their way back in the closing minutes, but Jacob Stockdale and Rory Best both made vital defensive interventions as Ulster held on to claim the win.