Ulster are back on home soil for the final round of the RaboDirect PRO12, determined to beat the Cardiff Blues and claim home advantage in the play-offs.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, May 3
ULSTER (1st) v CARDIFF BLUES (9th), Ravenhill, 7.45pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland)
Team News: Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe has made five changes and one positional switch to the team for Friday night’s crucial RaboDirect PRO12 match against Cardiff Blues at Ravenhill.
John Afoa, Johann Muller and Iain Henderson all return to the side, while Callum Black is preferred to Tom Court in the front row.
Robbie Diack and Chris Henry will both make their 100th senior appearances for Ulster, starting alongside each other in the back row.
Paul Marshall starts at scrum half, with Ruan Pienaar moving to out-half. Stuart Olding, who has scored two tries in his past two games, retains his place at inside centre with Darren Cave donning the number 13 jersey.
Tommy Bowe, who will tour Australia with the British & Irish Lions this summer, is selected on the left wing with Andrew Trimble, who has scored ten tries for the province so far this season, starting on the right.
Sean Doyle is included in an Ulster squad for the first time since breaking his leg in October and will start on the bench.
Nigel Brady is also named among the replacements in what is likely to be his last game for the Ulstermen at Ravenhill.
The 33-year-old hooker has represented Ulster for 12 years and has won 118 senior caps. He was part of the squad that won the Celtic League in 2006, and won his 100th cap in the record breaking 41-7 win over Leicester Tigers in the Heineken Cup last season.
His commitment to Ulster Rugby and his larger than life personality have made him a favourite of fans and players alike.
Ulster require three more match points to ensure that they finish top of the table. Anscombe’s charges have won their last three RaboDirect PRO12 matches and have lost just once at Ravenhill in the competition all season – 16-12 to Ospreys in February.
Meanwhile, having been selected for the British & Irish Lions squad on Tuesday, Alex Cuthbert will line up for the Cardiff Blues as they take on Ulster in their last match of the season.
Cuthbert, who has recovered from a hamstring injury, is playing his first game since helping clinch the Six Nations Championship for Wales with two tries against England.
Also in the backs Dan Fish starts at full-back having recovered from a shoulder injury. Rhys Patchell and Harry Robinson, who have both been selected in the Wales Under-20 squad for the IRB Junior World Championship in France, also start.
In the forwards Michael Paterson, playing his last game for the Blues before joining Sale Sharks, starts at number 8.
Josh Navidi, Lou Reed, Bradley Davies and Scott Andrews, who are all included in Wales’ 32-man training squad to prepare for the forthcoming two-Test tour of Japan, all start. Ceri Sweeney and Tom James, who will be joining Exeter Chiefs, feature on the bench.
ULSTER: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Tommy Bowe; Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall; Callum Black, Rory Best, John Afoa, Johann Muller (capt), Iain Henderson, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Nigel Brady, Tom Court, Declan Fitzpatrick, Dan Tuohy, Sean Doyle, Paddy Jackson, Michael Allen, Peter Nelson.
CARDIFF BLUES: Dan Fish; Alex Cuthbert, Gavin Evans (capt), Dafydd Hewitt, Harry Robinson; Rhys Patchell, Lewis Jones; Taufa’ao Filise, Kristian Dacey, Scott Andrews, Bradley Davies, Lou Reed, Luke Hamilton, Josh Navidi, Michael Paterson.
Replacements: Marc Breeze, Thomas Davies, Campese Ma’afu, Teofilo Paulo, Macauley Cook, Liam Davies, Ceri Sweeney, Tom James.
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Sean Gallagher, Nigel Correll (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/40; Draw: 40/1; Cardiff Blues to win: 11/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Robbie Diack (Ulster) – “Knowing that a win would mean a home semi-final is a huge motivation, but we have to win first.
“I think it will be tough for any side to come to Ravenhill and beat us in front of a home crowd so that’s a huge factor for us too. But we can’t start thinking about semi-finals or anything else until the end of 80 minutes on Friday night.
“It’s going to be a big night for me. To be getting my 100th cap in front of a Ravenhill crowd will be special. To be getting it on the same night as Chris – who is not only a team-mate but a friend -makes it even more special.”
Chris Henry (Ulster) – “There is a job to be done and that is more important (than the caps milestones). We want to achieve silverware this season.
“Robbie and I are both delighted to be making our 100th apperances, but if we can play our part in getting the team into a home semi-final then it will make it a night of proper celebration.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Ulster – Points: Ruan Pienaar 119; Tries: Andrew Trimble 8; Cardiff Blues – Points: Rhys Patchell 99; Tries: Alex Cuthbert 3
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Saturday, Apil 3, 2010 – Ulster 24 Cardiff Blues 33, Ravenhill
Sunday, November 21, 2010 – Cardiff Blues 15 Ulster 37, Cardiff City Stadium
Friday, February 25, 2011 – Ulster 32 Cardiff Blues 13, Ravenhill
Friday, September 16, 2011 – Ulster 20 Cardiff Blues 3, Ravenhill
Friday, February 17, 2012 – Cardiff Blues 21 Ulster 14, Arms Park
Friday, September 28, 2012 – Cardiff Blues 19 Ulster 48, Arms Park
– Ulster require three more match points to ensure that they finish at the top of the RaboDirect PRO12 table
– The Ulstermen have won their last three RaboDirect PRO12 matches and have lost just once at Ravenhill in the competition all season: 16-12 to the Ospreys in February
– Cardiff Blues have secured just six league points from their last half a dozen PRO12 encounters and have lost their last three away games in the competition
– The Blues only two victories over Irish provinces this season have strangely both been away from home – in Connacht in round 1 and Munster round 13
– Cardiff Blues’ only victory over Ulster in their last five fixtures was 21-14 at the Arms Park in February 2012