Ulster are in must-win territory in what could be an edgy affair against Cardiff

Taulupe Faletau is back for Cardiff after breaking his arm at the World Cup

United Rugby Championship: Ulster v Cardiff, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35 (Live on TG4)

This one doesn’t exactly come with great many selling points even though it is by no means a lightweight occasion for the rather anxious-ridden hosts.

We have two sides struggling for form with only Ulster in any realistic shape to make the playoffs though they still find themselves wrestling a very public crisis with its accompanying attachments of departed and departing personnel.

Following hard on the heels of their Challenge Cup implosion at Clermont – a six-day turnaround after shipping seven tries and 53 points – Ulster must get things moving again in the URC and fast as they are currently located eighth with five rounds to go.

Though the table is highly congested, just five points separate fifth-placed Stormers from the Lions down in 11th, Ulster’s baseline is at least one play-off league game and, of course, banking a finish that will bring them to Champions Cup rugby for next season.


Only then can they exhale with any sense of relief before whatever attempt at rebuilding is embarked upon really gets under way over the off-season.

Though they have won just twice from their last eight games, spread across Europe and the URC, Ulster are at least back on home soil after four matches – two in the Challenge Cup and league – which have entailed significant travel to France and South Africa.

Though they did manage one win from their challenging itinerary on the road that only came against a Montpellier side that self-destructed discipline-wise so it now may bring them some comfort and confidence that their previous outing at the Kingspan, in early March, resulted in a thumping result over the Dragons.

That victory over the Newport-based Welsh club came just before Richie Murphy officially took the reins so tonight is his first home fixture since becoming interim head coach and his fifth in the hot seat.

Though his stated intention was to manage some squad rotation in the wake of taking on the Sharks, Stormers, Montpellier and Clermont away from Belfast, injuries this week to skipper Iain Henderson, Steven Kitshoff, Rob Herring and Nick Timoney may well have somewhat weakened his hand for this evening.

As it is, Murphy has made nine changes in personnel to the starting side with four players making positional changes from six days ago, Nathan Doak is the most visible of the latter category as after starting the last three games at out half he finds himself shunted back to the more familiar slot of scrumhalf with John Cooney dropping to the bench.

Jake Flannery gets a run at 10 – Billy Burns returns to the bench – though he was last deployed from the off at the Ospreys back in February which ended in defeat, and the departure of Dan McFarland.

Jacob Stockdale comes back on the wing for his first game time since the Dragons match while Marcus Rea and Jude Postlethwaite are handed starting shirts they last wore in that same clash.

Up front, loosehead prop Eric O’Sullivan is given a rare place in the 15 to take the field, his previous sighting as a starter being back in November while up-and-coming tighthead Scott Wilson gets in ahead of the rotated Tom O’Toole.

Key personnel David McCann – though he has switched from flanker to number eight – James Hume and skipper Alan O’Connor provide some continuity. Normally Ulster would be expected to win with some ease but as they are in must-win territory it could prove to be an edgy-enough affair for them.

Cardiff come to Belfast off the back of seven straight losses but have Taulupe Faletau back after breaking his arm at the World Cup. They have also failed to win at the Kingspan since 2010.

Ulster: Will Addison; Mike Lowry, James Hume, Jude Postlethwaite, Jacob Stockdale; Jake Flannery, Nathan Doak; Eric O’Sullivan, Tom Stewart, Scott Wilson; Harry Sheridan, Alan O’Connor; Dave Ewers, Marcus Rea, Dave McCann. Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Cormac Izuchukwu, Greg Jones, John Cooney, Billy Burns, Ethan McIlroy.

Cardiff Rugby: C Winnett, J Adams, M Grady, B Thomas, T Cabango, T de Beer, E Bevan, C Domachowski, L Belcher (Capt), K Assiratti, B Donnell, T Williams, A Mann, T Young, T Faletau. Replacements: R Carré, E Lloyd, C Parker, R Thornton, E Jenkins, M Martin, G Bertranou, J Beetham.

Referee: M Adamson (SRU).