AFTER a week to recharge the batteries following their victory over the Dragons in the most testing of conditions, Ulster return to home soil on Friday night for another Welsh test as Cardiff come to town (7.35pm, live on BBC2).
A glimpse at the URC standings shows Friday’s visitors occupying 12th spot, but they have played no fewer than four games less than Ulster and their last game, way back on January 29, resulted in a 29-27 win over Leinster.
That alone should act as a warning ahead of Friday’s game, but the long layoff can either be viewed as an opportunity to recharge the batteries ahead or for cobwebs to have set in.
The answer to that will be known when kick-off comes, and Ulster’s skills coach, Craig Newby, believes his side will face a Cardiff team who will have spent their time to analyse Ulster to the nth degree, so, therefore, will be well prepared for this clash.
“At this stage of the season freshness counts and having a full squad available, or as many of your best players as possible, is important,” said the former New Zealand international.
“They would have had four or five weeks of preparation for this game, so they will know our game pretty well and that could give them an advantage.
“We are coming off a down week from playing, so our boys should have that freshness and I’m looking forward to an exciting game.
“The Leinster win was an outstanding effort from those boys, as a win against them is very precious and we know that. They’ll be coming in with some confidence so we’ve started the process to get ready to play at home against a very good side.”
🚨 𝙏𝙚𝙖𝙢 𝘼𝙣𝙣𝙤𝙪𝙣𝙘𝙚𝙢𝙚𝙣𝙩 🚨— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) March 3, 2022
Here is your Ulster match-day 2️⃣3️⃣ to host @Cardiff_Rugby at Kingspan Stadium on Friday evening ⤵️
Full story ➡️ https://t.co/y95XuWs2gb #URC | #ULSvCAR | #SUFTUM ⚪️🔴 pic.twitter.com/x7p7o5IWYB
While Cardiff have been left without a game for five weeks, Ulster have had a couple of outings since, but the stop-start nature of this stage of the season where the Six Nations takes centre stage can be a challenge in itself.
Ulster have had a number of players on international duty, but will welcome Robert Baloucoune, Iain Henderson, James Hume and Nick Timoney back this weekend who have been released from the Ireland camp, while there is further good news with the return from injury of John Cooney who is named on the bench.
Jordi Murphy returns to the starting line-up, having returned from injury to make his first appearance this season.
“I think the breaks are good as the players work really hard to prepare for games and the amount they put into games really takes its toll,” Newby added.
“Having a fresh and available squad is going to win you big games down the track, so I’ve not found this stop-start, but refreshing.
“It gives guys time to recuperate, spend time with their family and come back fresh, so I think it’s a positive.”
🔵⚫️ Here are the Blue and Blacks who travel to Belfast on Friday to take on @UlsterRugby— Cardiff Rugby (@Cardiff_Rugby) March 3, 2022
🔙 @Jnavidi is back!
🥈 Captain @JoshTurn6ull moves into second place for @URCOfficial appearances.
9⃣9⃣ is up for @jaaaarod pic.twitter.com/cKQxlEPOXk
The past fortnight may have been a chance to regather after the 12-0 win at Dragons a fortnight back in a game that was played out in dreadful conditions with a wind playing havoc with the attempted style of play.
It was a day for rolling up the sleeves and grinding out a result and that’s what they did.
It will be a much better night for rugby on Friday so it should afford the opportunity to implement what they have prepared for, but the main objective will be claiming the win to keep pace with Leinster at the top with the sides set to meet in Belfast next Saturday.
“We don’t get cold here - nothing like we had down in Newport,” Newby quipped.
“Conditions for rugby were not ideal, particularly for the way we like to play, but we were grateful to come away with four points from that game.
“We had some young guys step up in that game like Ben Moxam on the wing, so team morale was great coming back from that on the plane home.”