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Bowe and Jackson's return gives added strength to starting line-up

By Michael Sadlier

It's beginning to take shape now in the sense that the starting side for tonight is pretty much the strongest hand Ulster could play at this juncture.

True there is still no Jared Payne – who is still nursing his hip injury – and Iain Henderson who goes under the knife next week with his hip issue, but the return of Tommy Bowe and Paddy Jackson is a major fillip and certainly helps to somewhat distract attention from when Ruan Pienaar might be back in an Ulster shirt again.

But with this being both Bowe and Jackson's first outings of the season – and it likely to be a pretty fast track on Cardiff's 3G pitch where Ulster lost last time they visited – we can't expect them to be entirely firing on all cylinders.

True, but to just get them on the park and functioning within the team again is still sure to be a major boost for interim coach Les Kiss.

Jackson's game management, place-kicking and defensive strength, are both fundamental for Ulster while Bowe's ability to run line-breaks and just be on hand to snap up scores is just as important to the cause.

Indeed, Ulster's backline has been, hopefully, brought some further cutting edge by bringing Stuart Olding back into the starting side at inside centre and he hooks up with Darren Cave who has shaken off the rib injury he picked up early on against Zebre.

Mind you, this does mean that Ulster are fielding a third different starting midfield in as many games so that might come back to bite them a bit.

Louis Ludik is also elevated off last week's bench – though he made quite an impression at outside centre after Cave's departure – and he slots in at full-back.

Indeed, because of Cave's fitness, Luke Marshall – who started last week – drops out of the squad altogether while Craig Gilroy and Ian Humphreys bench for Bowe and Jackson respectively.

All in all, though, Ulster look to have plenty of attacking options in their locker and if Gilroy can be introduced – presumably the plan is to do so when Bowe tires – then the visitors' will hardly be losing anything in their hope of playing at a high tempo.

And with Franco van der Merwe back in the starting side, to complete the five changes to the side, there should hopefully be more accuracy at lineout time than was the case with Zebre.

Indeed, much has been said about the error-rate from last Friday and the need for greater precision and accuracy in Ulster's game and they know that a much more clinical display must be produced tonight in Cardiff if the visitors are to taste their first win on Welsh soil this season.

And that means better option-taking and decision-making as well as just basic handling.

The Ulster back row must also step it up and while Nick Williams intends to bludgeon his way around the park – as long as his knee holds out – both Chris Henry and Robbie Diack know that their breakdown work will have to shift up a few gears.

One area, though, which was notably powerful against Zebre was the scrum and Ulster's unchanged front row is sure to be given a rigorous testing in Cardiff tonight.

Relative novice at this level Andy Warwick comes up against the hugely experienced Adam Jones, while new Ulster skipper Rory Best will be crossing swords again with Matthew Rees which should be worth the entrance fee alone at the Arms Park in the Welsh capital.

The plaudits for Ulster tight-head prop Wiehahn Herbst were well merited against the Italians, and the burly South African will be required to do much the same again to both steady the set-piece and unsettle the Blues at scrum time.

With the surface hardly a major concern, the main worry would be that the players coming back into the side – particularly Jackson and Bowe – will not find it easy to gel.

Even so, Ulster should not be in a position to trip up as they did last March.

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