Ulster go for seven Pro12 wins in a row against Cardiff
Paddy Jackson and Rory Best return as Ulster seek a Guinness Pro12 playoff place
Rory Best returns to lead Ulster against Cardiff with co-captains Rob Herring and Andrew Trimble are on the bench. Photograph: Nicolas Tucat/Inpho/Presseye
ULSTER v CARDIFF BLUES
Kingspan Stadium; Kick-off: 7.35pm.
On TV: Live BBC Two.
Ulster come into this game on the back of six successive wins, during which they have accumulated 28 points out of a possible 30, albeit such has been their favourable run of fixtures (four were at home and one of their away days was against Zebre) they will partly feel they left a couple more bonus points behind.
They haven’t won seven league games in a row since the 2012-13 season. Ulster will most probably need to do so too in order to maintain their three point lead over fifth-placed Scarlets and their pursuit of a top four playoff, especially as their remaining three games are against the three sides above them, including treks to Thomond Park and the RDS. By contrast, three of the Scarlets’ last four games are against teams in the bottom half of the table, beginning with Treviso at home on Saturday night.
Rory Best returns to lead the side as co-captains Rob Herring and Andrew Trimble, who has recovered from the hand injury which has sidelined him for a month, are named on the bench. They are joined by 21-year-old Academy backrower Nick Timoney, who is in line for his senior debut.
Ulster have won eight of nine league matches at the Kingspan Stadium this season, their only blemish coming courtesy of Rory Scannell’s late drop goal for Munster back in October, and have won four of their last five meetings with Cardiff.
For their part, the Blues are seeking to avert a third successive defeat to Irish opposition having lost at home to Munster and away to Leinster, and their only win in one of their last eleven Irish trips was a 24-23 victory over Munster in September.
However, that win in Musgrave Park was one of four on the road this season, and they came within a whisker of a fifth at the RDS two weeks ago when demonstrating their ability to score from deep off turnover ball. That will have been a timely reminder to Les Kiss and his players of the need to be accurate in possession.
That said, Ulster look to have far more motivation and penetration in their ranks for what is their penultimate home game of the season, all the more so against a Cardiff side which appear to be marking time until they contest the playoffs for the final place in next season’s Champions Cup.
ULSTER: J Payne; C Gilroy, L Marshall, S Olding, C Piutau; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Best (capt), W Herbst, K Treadwell, A O’Connor, I Henderson, S Reidy, R Wilson. Replacements: R Herring, C Black, R Ah You, R Diack, N Timoney, P Marshall, J Stockdale, A Trimble.
CARDIFF BLUES: R Williams; A Cuthbert, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, B Scully; G Anscombe, L Williams; G Jenkins, M Rees, T Filise, G Earle, J Hoeata, E Jenkins, S Warburton, J Navidi. Replacements: K Myhill, C Domachowski, K Assiratti, J Down, N Williams, T Williams, S Shingler, M Morgan.
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU),
Overall Pro12 head to head record: Played 27, Ulster won 15, Blues won 12.
Last five meetings: (2013-14) Cardiff 28 Ulster 23. (2014-15) Cardiff 9 Ulster 26. Ulster 36 Cardiff 17. (2015-16) Ulster 24 Cardiff 17. Cardiff 23 Ulster 13. (2016-17) Cardiff 22 Ulster 35.
Five-game formguide: Ulster – W W W W W. Cardiff – L W W L L.
Leading points scorers: Ulster – Ruan Pienaar 100, Paddy Jackson 70. Cardiff – Steve Shingler 128. Gareth Anscombe 51.
Leading try scorers: Ulster – Jacob Stockdale 8, Charles Piutau, Ruan Pienaar 5. Cardiff – Tom James 6.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 1/7 Ulster. 25/1 Draw, 9/2 Cardiff. Handicap odds (Cardiff +14pts) 10/11 Ulster, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Cardiff.
Forecast: Ulster to win.