While Ireland versus the All Blacks quite rightly occupies the centre stage this weekend, Ulster have a rather important date less than 24 hours later.
After a break of three weeks in deference to the Home Nations’ autumn international programmes, Ulster get back to competitive action on Sunday in Cardiff.
As resumptions following time off go, they don’t come much tougher — or more important.
Successive defeats by Edinburgh at Murrayfield and Munster at Ravenhill have seen Ulster slip out of the top four, the Scots having made figurative hay while the metaphoric sun shone a fortnight ago.
Then, while Ulster rested, Edinburgh stole a march by playing Benetton Treviso in the Scottish capital, where they won 21-9 to leapfrog Brian McLaughlin’s side, albeit that Rob Moffat’s men now have played one match more. On Sunday afternoon (3:45) Ulster will bring themselves up to date in terms of fixtures fulfiled when they face Cardiff Blues in the Welsh capital.
If, at the end of that, they have managed to regain their place in the top four, it will be quite an achievement, given that Leinster — who currently trail Ulster by a point — are expected to beat Newport Gwent Dragons tonight at the RDS, the absence of a swathe of Irish internationals notwithstanding.
In addition, Ospreys, the defending champions, could nose ahead of Ulster tonight by beating Connacht in Galway, though the Welsh outfit will be minus so many first-choice players as to be unrecognisable from the side which won last season’s Magners League.
To that, add the fact that Cardiff’s home record against |Ulster is pretty impressive — witness wins in all but one of their Magners League meetings on Welsh soil.
Cardiff won last term’s tete a tete 19-9. In 2008/09 they were victors by a slender 16-15 margin. The season before that they were 30-17 winners. In 2006/07 it finished 20-15. The score in 2004/05 was 22-8 in the hosts’ favour. In 2003/04 they shaded the verdict 19-15. Indeed, Ulster’s only away day success against Cardiff was in 2005/06 when they won 25-22 en route to the Magners League title.
Faced with such daunting |statistics, one could forgive Ulster for wishing that the cessation could continue for another few weeks.
But their mood is quite the opposite; they are itching to get back to League action and returning to winning ways.
That is true of one player |in particular, for with Ruan Pienaar away on South African duty, Paul Marshall returns at scrum-half where he is keen to make the most of his opportunity to start, something he has not known since the Springbok’s arrival in early September.
While Marshall wore the number nine shirt, Ulster were unbeaten in their first four Magners League outings.
Ospreys, Aironi and Edinburgh were put to the sword, following which McLaughlin’s men drew 15-15 against Connacht in Galway. Heady days.
Since Pienaar took over, however, Marshall’s involvement has amounted to a run-out for the final eight minutes of Ulster’s four-try Heineken Cup romp against Aironi at Ravenhill on October 8.
He played no part in the subsequent trips to Biarritz and Edinburgh or the home date with Munster. All three matches ended in defeat. Small wonder he’s chomping at the bit and dying to get started afresh.
He said: “It’ll be good to play again. Having watched too much rugby for my liking in the past few weeks it’ll be nice to get a game.
“You get used to playing — you start to feel comfortable, you start to feel part of things so it’s hard when you’re not selected.”
Admitting that limited match time has created a challenge for him, he stresses that has been the case in the past, too.
Previously it was Isaac Boss who kept him out.
“That’s the way it has always been for me, maybe getting a couple of games here and there rather than a run in the team,” he said.
“And scrum-half is a position where you need to be playing regularly to get into your rhythm so that the guys around you know what you’re doing.
“But at the end of the day you’re just pleased to play when you can and if that’s the opportunity you get then you just try to do your best and take it.”
ULSTER SQUAD: Forwards — Jerry Cronin, Paddy McAllister, Bryan Young, BJ Botha, Andi Kyriacou, Nigel Brady, Tim Barker, Ryan Caldwell, Dan Tuohy, Johann Muller, Willie Faloon, Robbie Diack, Pedrie Wannenburg, Chris Henry
Backs — Adam D’Arcy, David McIlwaine, Tommy Seymour, Simon Danielli, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Jamie Smith, Nevin Spence, Ian Whitten, Ian Humphreys, Niall O’Connor, Paul Marshall, Ian Porter