McCall goes looking to banish the Blues
Just three games to go in their Magners League campaign and Ulster's title hopes are still alive, if only just.
Despite their diffident form since the turn of the year, a bonus-point win for Mark McCall's side against Cardiff Blues tonight (kick-off 7.10pm) would take the reigning champions level on points at the top of the table with Leinster.
Michael Cheika's side don't play until next Friday, when they must travel to the Neath/Swansea Ospreys, who themselves are homing in on the title, currently trailing Leinster by nine points but with two games in hand.
In between however, the Ospreys must travel to Heineken Cup semi-finals Llanelli on Tuesday night.
A defeat for the Ospreys at Stradey Park, coupled with a Leinster defeat at the Liberty Stadium next Friday would open the door again for Ulster, whose remaining two games are both imminently winnable games at Ravenhill - against Glasgow and Edinburgh.
But above all the scenario is dependent on Ulster landing their fifth win on the road this season, with the bonus point now an almost necessary addition.
"If we have got any hope at all then we have got to win tonight," admitted McCall.
"Everybody knows that but to go over and get any kind of result would be massive for us given what we have been through in the last couple of months.
"It is the first time that we have had back-to-back matches since January and the players are enjoying the fact that they can turn around from the Borders game and have a match to look forward to, plan and prepare for and get our teeth into."
McCall was happy to monitor certain improvements in his side's performance in the 33-9 win over the Borders last Friday but also contends his side must offer much more to combat the threat from a Cardiff side that also harbour lingering hopes of a shot at the title following a 48-0 demolition of Edinburgh last weekend.
"The fact that we had to fight for the victory - and there was a time in the middle of the second half when it could have gone either way - did us a power of good," added McCall.
"We dug in, showed a bit of spirit when it looked like it wasn't going to go our way and were then able to pull away with a couple of tries. That was important.
"Our first try (by Stephen Ferris) was as good a try as we have scored all season, definitely the best team try and there were other glimpses. It was pleasing that we played the game that we had practised and that we looked very good and hard to stop.
"What we have got to do is cut out the small mistakes that have been costing us all season. Against the Borders we made two or three mistakes 10 metres from their line which if we hadn't would have made the night a lot easier than it was."
McCall must do without his side's talisman David Humphreys, who was yesterday ruled out of the contest having suffered an adductor injury picked up in training this week.
Paddy Wallace switches to out-half, with Paul Steinmetz returning to the line-up at inside centre. Kevin Maggs is included in the replacements bench, where flanker Neil McMillan returns to the Ulster squad for the first time since fracturing a thumb in January.
Rory Best, who was a major injury concern at the start of the week having suffered a neck injury against the Borders, is passed fit, as is Ryan Caldwell, who has shaken off an ankle problem.
Cardiff coach Dai Young has made two changes to the side that defeated Edinburgh.
Jamie Robinson comes in at centre, with Tom Shanklin dropping to the bench while Gary Powell gives way to Taufa'ao Filise at prop.
The Blues have won their last dozen Magners League matches at the Arms Park, and have not lost at home to an Irish team in the league since Munster were the visitors in November 2005.
And Young is determined to extend that record tonight.
"Ulster are a tough, well-organised side and will be coming here to win," said Young. "But we still have the title in our sights. We are creeping up on people and are not being talked about.
"We're quite happy to go quietly about our business, to climb the table and catch people unawares."
CARDIFF BLUES: B Blair; R Williams, J Robinson, M Stcherbina, C Czekaj; N Macleod, M Phillips; G Jenkins, T R Thomas, T Filise, B Davies, R Sidoli, A Powell, M Williams, X Rush (capt).
Replacements: G Powell, G Williams, D Jones, M Lewis, E Fairhurst, N Robinson, T Shanklin.
ULSTER: B Cunningham; T Bowe, A Trimble, P Steinmetz, A Maxwell; P Wallace, I Boss; B Young, R Best, S Best (capt), J Harrison, R Caldwell, S Ferris, N Best, R Wilson
Replacements: P Shields, J Fitzpatrick, T Barker, N McMillan, K Campbell, K Maggs, P McKenzie