Ulster likely to struggle on emotional return to action
RABO DIRECT PRO12 LEAGUE Cardiff v Ulster:THE FIRST match after the tragic events of the past few weeks makes it only too believable that accommodating grief and the relative trivia of playing rugby are worlds apart for the Ulster players this weekend.
While it seems inconceivable that the death of Nevin Spence will remain anything but an open wound for many years to come, the process of tackling the mundane demands of the PRO 12 may prove a greater obstacle than the Blues at Cardiff Arms Park tonight.
Ulster will mark their first match back with a tribute on their shirts but there will be no minute’s silence or black armbands in Cardiff.
More appropriately, perhaps, a minute’s silence as a mark of respect will take place next week at Ravenhill before the Connacht match.
Ulster have not played since their 20-19 home win over Munster two weeks ago but with Tommy Bowe making his return to Ulster colours on the right and Andrew Trimble on the other side, the wings have an international flavour.
Head coach Mark Anscombe continues his rotation policy with five personnel changes and three positional switches, with Bowe’s arrival pushing Michael Allen to outside centre and Darren Cave to number 12.
Scrumhalf Paul Marshall, outhalf Paddy Jackson and fullback Jared Payne retain their places, while captain Johann Muller is injured so Neil McComb comes into lock beside Dan Tuohy, who makes his first appearance of the season.
Stephen Ferris has been rested so rising star Iain Henderson joins Chris Henry and Nick Williams in the backrow. The frontrow of Tom Court, Nigel Brady and John Afoa remains unchanged.
Ulster have won all three league matches this season but their only defeat in the last five clashes with Welsh regions came in this equivalent fixture last season. Cardiff have lost once in four matches.
They line out with key players Jamie Roberts in the centre, Jason Tovey at outhalf, captain Sam Warburton in the backrow and Bradley Davies in the secondrow and making his 100th appearance for the club.
Welsh flier Leigh Halfpenny is sidelined with injury.
“Friday I think will be our sternest test against the Heineken Cup finalists,” said coach Phil Davies. “It’s going to be Ulster’s first game back since the tragic news they received a fortnight ago about Nevin Spence.
“We are paying due respect to the situation Ulster are in and how they feel by matching that emotion and that level of performance. Hopefully we will have a great game as a tribute to a great rugby player and a great Ulsterman.”
The question for Anscombe is whether Ulster land in Cardiff and expect a result without Muller, Ferris, Ruan Pienaar and Rory Best and the answer is probably not.
CARDIFF BLUES: D Fish; H Robinson, D Hewitt, J Roberts, T James; J Tovey, L Williams; N Trevett, A Kyriacou, T Filise, B davies, J Down, R Copeland, S Warburton (capt), A Pretorious. Replacements: R Williams, C Ma’afu, S Andrews, Reed, R Watts-Jones, R Lewis, G Davies, T Williams.
ULSTER: J Payne; T Bowe, M Allen, D Cave, A Trimble; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, N Brady, J Afoa, N McComb, D Tuohy, I Henderson, C Henry (capt), N Williams. Replacements: R Herring, C Black, A Macklin, L Stevenson , M McComish, M Heaney, P Wallace, C Gilroy.
Referee: M Mitrea(IRFU).
Forecast: Cardiff win