Stress rehearsal: Anscombe will call on Ulster big guns for PRO12 Cardiff Blues game
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has a few issues to ponder ahead of Saturday's PRO12 game at Cardiff Blues (kick-off 6.30pm).
Though securing a ninth straight win in all competitions to stay unbeaten in 2014 is still the clear priority as third-placed Ulster continue their bid to hunt down a PRO12 play-off place, Anscombe will also have next Saturday evening's crunch Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens at Ravenhill very much on his mind.
So with the dire Blues languishing in 10th place having lost their last five PRO12 outings, allied to the fact that the game will be played on the Arms Park's 4G pitch, does Anscombe now deploy his strongest side, and the one most likely to take the field against Saracens, or does he preserve some of his front-liners from playing on an artificial surface in a game they, theoretically, should win anyway?
The likelihood is that he will go with something close to his Saracens starting side and some of his squad could certainly do with more game-time with Dan Tuohy – who made a timely return from his broken arm when coming off the bench at Murrayfield last week – Nick Williams and John Afoa uppermost in this regard.
Tommy Bowe also falls into this category and the Ireland and Lions winger is feeling good again after returning to action last month with a brace of tries against the Dragons – indeed after also scoring last time out against the Scarlets he now has three tries in three games.
"My fitness is coming on," the 30-year-old, who has had an injury disrupted season, said.
"I had my first 80 (minutes) against Edinburgh last weekend and I am feeling good."
Bowe will want more action on Saturday night and will certainly want to emulate the last time he was there with Ulster when he scored twice in September 2012's 48-19 drubbing of the Blues.
"It would be very nice to get a few tries against them again this season," Bowe stated.
"I enjoy playing there on the new artificial surface, the track is going to be very fast and hopefully the rain stays off and we can play some good rugby," he added.
Luke Marshall is another who could benefit from more time on the park while Stephen Ferris will doubtless not be holding back when it comes to making himself available to play.
Coach Anscombe must also decide whether Rory Best, Andrew Trimble and Chris Henry – who are all sure to be bursting to get back after the Six Nations triumph – should be deployed, though the need to get the trio back in an Ulster jersey again with next week's season-defining game looming large may mean they just can't be left out.
Anscombe will doubtless also be considering whether skipper Johann Muller could do with a rest week. And both Robbie Diack and Roger Wilson would also appear to be strong candidates to be stood down on the basis of their constant involvement but, with one or other providing back-up at number eight, it seems highly unlikely that Anscombe can go to Cardiff without both of them.
And then there is Ruan Pienaar who picked up a still unspecified shoulder injury against the Scarlets. If fit, does Anscombe risk one of his star players on an artificial surface? It's a big call to make and it may be prudent to keep Pienaar out until the European showdown.
One area where Ulster are looking rather short of options, though, is at loose-head prop where Callum Black's ankle injury picked up in the Scarlets clash means that Ballymena prop Andy Warwick – who has since been added to Ulster's Heineken Cup squad – is the only back-up to Tom Court.
So there is plenty to weigh up for Anscombe in a week which began with Ulster having a team bonding day at Jungle NI in Moneymore – incidentally, Saracens did their thing by going for three days to New York – and will end with the squad seeking their seventh straight PRO12 victory and a hopefully clear injury profile from whatever side is sent out to down the Blues.