Stockdale and Henderson to start for Ulster against Cardiff Blues
Coach Gibbes makes six changes for struggling province’s first game in a month
Iain Henderson: back to aid Ulster’s cause following Ireland’s Grand Slam victory over England at Twickenham. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Cardiff Blues v Ulster, Cardiff Arms Park, Saturday, 3.15pm (Live Sky Sports Arena)
Under the strain of their current circumstances, and after flagging their intentions in midweek, Ulster surprised no one by deploying the Ireland Grand Slam pair of Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson for today’s clash at Cardiff Blues.
With Ulster badly needing positive results, having Stockdale, yesterday named Six Nations Player of the Championship, and Henderson in the starting side is designed to bring in some form and consistency from the national squad in the hope it might turn the tide for the struggling province.
Jono Gibbes has therefore brought pretty much his strongest team to do battle on in-form Cardiff’s artificial surface – the rested Rory Best aside from those fit to play, though, notably, Chris Henry is not included in the 23 – with the returning Charles Piutau at full-back and Craig Gilroy making up an attack-minded back three alongside try-scoring machine Stockdale.
In total, Gibbes – who is Waikato-bound at season’s end – has made six changes for Ulster’s first game in a month after their scheduled home game with Glasgow Warriors was postponed due to the adverse weather at the start of March.
The other alterations from Ulster’s last game – a heavy defeat at the Scarlets at the end of February – sees Rob Herring return at hooker while Clive Ross gets a rare start at openside flanker in a back row including Henderson and Nick Timoney at number eight.
With few other options, Gibbes has again gone for Johnny McPhillips at outhalf and the side is led for the fourth time by Alan O’Connor.
In a bench hardly bristling with impact, the visitors have promising Ireland U20s lock Matthew Dalton ready to come on.
Realistically, Ulster’s cruellest of seasons is now largely about holding what they have rather than being able to break back into Conference B’s top three.
So, maintaining fourth spot – and a play-off for next season’s Champions Cup – looks like the most achievable goal for the northern province who come up against former player Nick Williams today.
Including this clash with the Blues, three of Ulster’s five remaining regulation season games are away from home, which is hardly promising as they have only won twice outside the Kingspan Stadium in this season’s PRO14.
CARDIFF BLUES: M Morgan; B Scully, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, O Lane; J Evans, T Williams; G Jenkins (capt), M Rees, S Andrews; G Earle, S Davies; J Turnbull, E Jenkins, N Williams.
Replacements: K Dacey, R Gill, D Lewis, B Murphy, M Cook, L Williams, S Shingler, G Smith.
ULSTER: C Piutau; C Gilroy, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, W Herbst; A O’Connor (capt), K Treadwell; I Henderson, C Ross, N Timoney.
Replacements: J Andrew, C Black, R Kane, M Dalton, M Rea, D Shanahan, P Nelson, L Ludik.
Referee: M Adamson (SRU)
Verdict: Cardiff win