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Ulster and Cardiff Blues prepared for vital showdown

client 2 Dec 2016
Franco van der Merwe

Both Ulster and Cardiff Blues have a major point to prove when they meet at BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday as their lightning fast Guinness PRO12 starts have faded away.

After four consecutive wins to start the season, Danny Wilson’s men have fallen off and have now lost four of their last five games.

Ulster too started with a bang, as Les Kiss’ side racked up five straight wins before a 30-25 loss to Connacht at the Sportsground triggered a slide of three losses.

What’s at stake? 

Neither side are in real trouble, at sixth and seventh respectively – with a point separating them – in the Guinness PRO12 table, and within a bonus-point win of the top four.
But both Wilson and Kiss will be disappointed to have squandered such promising starts and Saturday represents a chance to reinvigorate their campaign against quality opposition following the Test window.

A win for Connacht at home to Benetton Treviso will leave them in striking distance of the losing side, while the winner will be back into the thick-end of Guinness PRO12 contenders.

Team News (Cardiff Blues): Three Test British & Irish Lions return to Danny Wilson’s squad as he pulls no punches for this vital clash.

Gethin Jenkins, Sam Warburton and Alex Cuthbert all come straight into the starting XV, with Wilson having the rare luxury of welcoming back Wales’ two autumn captains into the same side.

Wales outside-half Gareth Anscombe will not feature – he requires groin surgery and will be out for six weeks.

Team News (Ulster): Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble both miss out through injury, but Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson, Charles Piutau and Craig Gilroy all start.

Henderson, who started at lock in Ireland’s 27-24 win against Australia, is handed the No 6 jersey as Chris Henry makes his first start of the season at openside.

Talking points: Danny Wilson expects a tense battle, saying: “We beat Ulster at home last season in quite an exciting game and I envisage something similar on Saturday evening.
“They would have wanted that game last week and are coming into this after three weeks off but they have a star-studded team and their internationals back. They have some real quality”

Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo have been in fine form for the Blues, but with the return of Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall, they face tough Test-level opposition.

All four are critical to their side’s attacking game and with no Paddy Jackson for Ulster, Marshall and McCloskey will have to work well with scrum-half Ruan Pienaar to control the game.

Key Battle: Chris Henry (Ulster) v Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues) In Bowe, Cuthbert, Gilroy and Piutau both sides have firepower, but the battle between the two opensides will dictate the quality of ball they have to play with.

Key Stat: Ulster have lost their last three Guinness PRO12 fixtures and have not been defeated in four successive matches in the Championship since 2011.

Lions contenders: After the Rugby World Cup, Henderson was one of Ireland’s brightest young talents, but having spent a long period injured, he has watched the likes of Ultan Dillane emerge.

The 24-year-old can be a regular for his country if he can string a run of games together, that starts against a strong Blues team.

Warburton, Cuthbert and Jenkins are all experienced Lions but will no doubt harbour ambitions of another trip and have the perfect chance to make a statement against an Irish team bursting at the seams with class.

Did you know? The Ulstermen have won their last four encounters with Welsh Regions and Cardiff Blues have won just one of their last five Guinness PRO12 matches: 34 – 28 in Treviso in round 8.

Cardiff Blues:  Scully, Cuthbert, Lee-Lo, Halaholo, James, Shingler, Williams; Jenkins (capt), Dacey, Filise, Earle, Turnbull, Jenkins, Warburton, Navidi
Replacements:  Rees, Gill, Andrews, Hoeata, Cook, Williams, Robinson, Morgan

Top points scorer: Steve Shingler 54 Top Try Scorer: Tom James 6

Ulster: Piutau, Bowe, Marshall, McCloskey, Gilroy, Herron, Pienaar; McCall, Herring (capt), Herbst, Browne, Van der Merwe, Henderson, Henry, Reidy

Replacements: Andrew, Warwick, Ah You, Treadwell, Ross, Marshall, Ludik, Cave

Top Points Scorer: Paddy Jackson 44 Top Try Scorer: Rob Lyttle 3

Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:

Played 26, Blues won 12, Ulster won 14.

At BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park, 5.15pm Live on Sky Sports
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU, 16th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Sean Gallagher (IRFU), Aled Evans (WRU)
Citing Commissioner: Denis Jones (WRU)
TMO: Charles Samson (SRU)

Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final

Historical Lineup Pre Opta (sfms data) - Preview - v2

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Ulster stop the rot with bonus-point Blues win

Ross Lawson 3 Dec 2016

Ulster ended their three-game Guinness PRO12 losing run in superb style as Ruan Pienaar starred in a bonus-point 35-22 victory against Cardiff Blues.

Charles Piutau, Stuart McCloskey and loosehead Kyle McCall all touched down in a breathless first-half, despite Les Kiss’ side playing their first game for a month.

Openside flanker Chris Henry marked his return to secure the bonus-point win in the second half, with a Louis Ludik charge down sealing the win.

Kristian Dacey’s first-half score followed by tries from Willis Halahalo and Alex Cuthbert gave the Blues hope, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a fifth Guinness PRO12 defeat in six outings.

Despite Ulster boasting much of the early ball, it was the hosts who first ticked over the scoreboard, Steve Shingler needing just four minutes to find his range for a side missing Sam Warburton through illness.

And it could have got better for Blues too as Tom James – eyeing up a seventh try of the season – found room on the left after a wonderful Shingler pass, only for Piutau to hold his own and bundle his man to touch.

But from the first meaningful attack, rewards came, Ulster pinning the home defence right on their line, 11 phases of pressure proving its worth as Piutau dotted down for his second try in Ulster colours.

With Blaine Scully by this point in the sin-bin, Ulster’s numerical advantage came to the fore, McCloskey dancing his way through the defence to make the most of wing Craig Kilroy’s break.

Pienaar’s conversion extended the lead to 11, but the South African was not done there, charging down a kick to allow McCall to power over from short range.

Only Zebre and Benetton Treviso had conceded more than the Blues’ 27 tries before Guinness PRO12 round ten, and with three against their name in quick succession, Danny Wilson’s side had to find form fast.

And they did exactly that with the last play of the half, brilliant footwork from Reynold Lee-Lo setting up Kristian Dacey to bundle over, the deficit 21-8 at the break.

It was Blues’ momentum that carried into the second period with a superb break down the right seeing Cuthbert denied by a high Iain Henderson tackle, enough to see the Ulsterman in the sin-bin.

Yet with Luke Marshall following suit after Henderson’s return, it was Ulster next on the scoreboard, a wonderful break from Tommy Bowe – eyeing up his 65th try in the league – saw quick ball to the left, Henry crossing under pressure from Matthew Morgan to bring the bonus point.

Nick Robinson – making his first Blues appearance since 2009 – almost single-handedly brought his side back, delivering two delicious passes for Halahalo and Cuthbert to dot down within minutes of each other, the jitters certainly present in the Ulster squad.

That was until a second charge-down try sealing the deal, Ludik profiting to touch down for the Irish province’s fifth try in an entertaining clash in Wales, Pienaar maintaining his excellent form with the boot.

Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final

Match Page 2017-18 - Summary WP:137

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Match Page 2017-18 - Timeline WP:139

Match Page 2017-18 - Lineups WP: 135

Match Page 2017-18 - Performance WP:138