Ulster are facing one of the most difficult trips of their Magners League campaign when they tackle Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park tonight.
That is the view of Ulster coach Matt Williams, whose side are desperate to make up for a disappointing 16-9 defeat to the Scarlets at Ravenhill last Friday.
Although the Blues coach Dai Young is already under pressure from some sections of the Welsh media following a 16-16 draw at home with defending champions Leinster and a thumping 32-10 defeat while fielding an under-strength side against the Ospreys on Tuesday night, Williams believes the Welsh region will still be one of the title contenders.
And given the depth of Cardiff’s squad, the Ulster coach sees the Arms Park as one of the toughest venues on the circuit this season.
“The Welsh teams are virtually running two teams,” said Williams, who has made two changes to his starting line-up with David Pollock preferred to Kieron Dawson in the back row and Ryan Caldwell coming in for the injured Carlo Del Fava at lock.
“And Cardiff are a very, very good side. They dominated Leinster for vast periods of the game and I thought Leinster did a tremendous job to hang in there with smart tactics and good discipline.
“There is no doubt Cardiff are going to go very, very close to winning this competition. If they do not finish first, second or third I will be very surprised.”
Young has made nine changes from the team that folded against the Ospreys in Swansea with ex-Wales and British Lions captain Gareth Thomas making his first league appearance of the season.
Captain Paul Tito returns at lock with Gethin Jenkins coming into the front-row at loosehead prop while Martyn Williams, Mark Lewis and Maama Molitika make-up a new-look back row.
Behind the scrum, talented Wales U20 star Leigh Halfpenny gets an outing with Chris Czekaj on the other wing and Nicky Robinson back at No 10.
“We have to show character, but equally important we have to show purpose,” said Young, whose side will be wearing pink shirts tonight to raise awareness of their nominated charity for the season, Cancer Research Wales. “Home games are paramount to us and we have to make sure we get a result.”
Meanwhile, the IRFU have announced changes to the format of the All-Ireland League Division One from 2009/2010.
Under the new structure, the top league will be split into two sections of eight teams each on a meritocracy basis, with all teams playing each other on a home and away basis each season. The top three teams in section A and the top team in Section B at the end of the season will go forward to the play-offs for the overall title of ‘AIB League Division One Champions’.
At the end of the season, the bottom two clubs in section A will be replaced by the top two sides in section B, while the bottom two clubs in section B will be relegated to Division Two, with the top two clubs in that league winning promotion to the top flight.
The IRFU believe the shake-up is a bid to increase the intensity of competition, critical for the development of the young provincial professional players and academy players aiming to step up to the professional ranks.