The international window, and the late postponement of last Friday’s Guinness PRO12 clash with Zebre, means the northern province have been out of action for four weeks. But Ulster assistant coach Allen Clarke insists his side will not be caught cold on their trip to Cardiff Arms Park (5.15pm, Sky Sports).
“It’s been a month since we played, and the boys are professional in the way they go about things and they want to put the last game at Edinburgh behind us. I believe they can, there’s been a real energy about how they’ve prepared and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Cardiff’s attacking midfield threat and the quality of its back-row unit are the areas Ulster must counter according to Clarke.
“The Blues play with real tempo, they like to play with the ball, and they have Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo available and these are top players. I have no doubt we cannot just match them but provide and even sharper cutting edge in our back division.
“And no matter the combination in the back-row it’s always been a strength, so we have to be on top of our game at the breakdown, set the pace and if we can play anything close to our potential then we can get what would be a vital win and reset our season.”
Ulster will wait until midday today to make decisions on the fitness of flanker-cum-lock Iain Henderson, the Irish international released to his club but nursing a shoulder knock picked up in the win over Australia last weekend.
“He is really keen to play, but we’ll look at his situation carefully,” said Clarke, who is hopeful international centre Stuart McCloskey could return after a foot fracture, possibly to partner Luke Marshall in midfield.
Brett Herron will deputise for Paddy Jackson at out-half, and Rob Herring steps in for hooker Rory Best and skippers the side which will be without two other Ireland casualties, winger Andrew Trimble and centre Jared Payne. But with Louis Ludik, Tommy Bowe, Charles Piutau, Craig Gilroy and Jacob Stockdale ‘in the mix’ the Ulster backline has strength and quality in depth.
Up front Dan Tuohy’s imminent move to Bristol means Franco van der Merwe will partner Peter Browne or Alan O’Connor at lock, while Chris Henry’s long-awaited return to the back row offers new energy at the breakdown.