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Rugby: the epic showdowns both on and off the field

By Jonathan Bradley

The Inside Track: Our man Jonathan Bradley tackles all the battles in tonight’s game and looks at the main contenders, the threats and the team tactics that will be in play this season.

Rhys Patchell v Louis Ludik

With Gareth Anscombe – the son of former Ulster coach Mark – set to arrive at the Arms Park in the coming months, Rhys Patchell will be aware that he needs to set down something of a marker in the season's opening stages if he is to be sure of his place in the team come the winter – even more so if a rumoured return for Leigh Halfpenny comes to fruition.

The 21-year-old has responded well so far and, in their two games to date, has accounted for 33 of his side's 53 points. Switched from out-half to full-back for tonight's game, it will be interesting to see if the playmaker exerts the same influence on proceedings.

Louis Ludik is promoted from the bench to fill Ulster's full-back slot after an impressive showing at outside centre last week.

The summer arrival from Agen – he has also represented both the Lions and more recently the Sharks in Super Rugby – has impressed fans so far this season with his ability to beat a man and was a try-scorer in the draw with Scarlets during Ulster's last visit to Wales two weeks ago.

Adam Jones v Andrew Warwick

The levels of experience could hardly differ any more vastly but this promises to be an intriguing tussle come scrum time. Despite concerns over match fitness and his adjustment to last season's new scrum laws, the signing of Jones represented a coup for Cardiff.

 Their set-piece looked strong against Glasgow on Sunday with Jones receiving much of the credit and, despite the advancing years, any prop with 95 Wales caps, along with five for the Lions, commands respect.

With only eight Ulster appearances to his name, tonight will represent a challenge for the 23-year-old Warwick as he looks to build on an impressive showing against Zebre.

No stranger to a test — he held his own against Cian Healy against Leinster last year despite playing in his less-favoured tighthead position — Warwick will be expected to front up against Jones.

Despite standing two inches taller, 6ft 2in compared to 6ft, at 17st 9lbs Warwick is lighter by a stone and four pounds but will look to use his extra mobility to his advantage.

Gareth Davies v Paddy Jackson

Paddy Jackson returns to the side at out-half tonight after missing the opening games of the season, as well as Ireland's tour to Argentina over the summer, with a back injury that he struggled with throughout the closing months of the last campaign.

Back to fitness, we can expect to see some rustiness from the nine-times-capped Irish international but, with Ruan Pienaar out for between four to six weeks, much responsibility will weigh on his shoulders during upcoming games. Given the nature of his injury, fans will be keen to see if any lingering effects influence his kicking routine.

Cardiff's starter at 10 Gareth Davies has also not seen much rugby this season, he has played just 49 minutes of Cardiff's two games so far, but is restored this evening with Patchell moving to full-back.

A relative late-comer to rugby, he made his first appearance for the Blues just four years ago, Ulster will need little reminder of the dangers posed by the 30-year-old after he scored 23 points against them in last season’s corresponding fixture.

The main threats

Despite the game ultimately ending in defeat, the Cardiff scrum looked strong against Glasgow and the signings of former All Black Jarrad Hoeata and British and Irish Lion Adam Jones appear to have solidified their tight five.

Ulster's new-look front row know they will be in for a battle and how they respond will be important.

With the exception of Manoa Vosawai, the Blues' pack is more adept in the close exchanges and will rely on a strong collection of backs to do the damage.

With Rhys Patchell reverting to fullback, the Welsh international will still look to get on the ball and join the potentially potent three-quarters that include sublime finisher Alex Cuthbert.

Given their field of expertise, Les Kiss and Johnny Bell will be demanding that Ulster's defence looks a more cohesive unit than the one we have seen in the last two weeks as Cardiff are a side more than capable of exploiting lapses in concentration. The visitors will also be especially wary of their discipline after allowing the Blues to kick seven penalties when they last met.

Team tactics

Given the backs at his disposal, as well the artificial surface, Cardiff’s new director of rugby Mark Hammett is keen to play at a high tempo when his side have the ball and Ulster's Les Kiss will be looking forward to matching that quick-moving style with his own impressive playmakers.

The ball will be thrown around at a pace that will excite fans but, given the degree of profligacy displayed by Ulster against Zebre, it will be crucial that accuracy is maintained.

Cardiff's defence coach Dale McIntosh has his charges playing in a committed fashion and in Filo Paulo and Fijian-born Italian international Manoa Vosawai they have physical players who will make ball-carriers think twice about challenging the gainline.

However, sloppy tries conceded off a turnover and an interception proved their undoing against Glasgow last time out.

Ulster will also have noted how they faded in the final quarter of that contest and, despite injuries depleting the squad, will look for impact off the bench late on.

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