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Jordi Murphy and Iain Henderson return to strengthen Ulster, but fit-again John Cooney set for bench duty

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Jordi Murphy is back in an Ulster shirt. Credit: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Jordi Murphy is back in an Ulster shirt. Credit: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Marty Moore scored Ulster's first half try (INPHO/Ryan Byrne)

Marty Moore scored Ulster's first half try (INPHO/Ryan Byrne)

©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

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Jordi Murphy is back in an Ulster shirt. Credit: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Some rare but very welcome sightings are on the agenda for this evening.

Jordi Murphy is finally fit enough to play his first game since last May’s much-unloved Rainbow Cup, Iain Henderson will wear an Ulster shirt for only the third time this season and John Cooney returns after not being seen since early January.

And yet there is some arguably interesting symbolism to Dan McFarland’s selection.

Murphy and Henderson come straight back into the starting side but Cooney has to bide his time for that privilege as he is benched behind Nathan Doak, who, it cannot be denied, has made the No.9 shirt his own this season.

Not that long ago, a fit-again Cooney would likely have been parachuted straight back into the team, but not now. Their battle for predominance should be quite a tussle and, of course, can really only be of benefit for Ulster should both stay fit.

Add to that the presence of Duane Vermeulen with No.20 on his back, Nick Timoney beginning the game at No.8 for the second successive time, while Murphy gets the nod at blindside flanker and Marcus Rea retained at openside, and you might wonder if this call is maybe a gentle gee-up for Ulster’s marquee signing.

However it all pans out, the returns of Murphy and Cooney from their injuries as well as Henderson — in his case Covid, though there have been various knocks this campaign — are significant, though the latter will be missing during the course of what remains of the Six Nations.

Whether that also applies to James Hume, Timoney and Robert Baloucoune is not so clear but all three get another run out this evening and at least two of them may well be back again next weekend for the hugely anticipated visit of Leinster.

Overall, Ulster look pretty strong — Marty Moore and Alan O’Connor will bring guile and graft — and a bonus-point win will put them top of the URC table again, at least until Leinster play tomorrow.

While Baloucoune’s presence on the right wing will, ideally, allow him opportunities to attack Cardiff on the edge or even by utilising angled runs back infield, the remaining two thirds of Ulster’s back three sees Ben Moxham again on the wing while Stewart Moore is put in at full-back.

Rob Lyttle’s unexplained absence — he played very well in the dreadful conditions against the Dragons — leaves Ulster looking a bit thin on the ground at the back as Craig Gilroy is still serving his ban, Ethan McIlroy is injured and Michael Lowry is with Ireland.

Moore will know that Cardiff are likely to investigate his positioning but the 22-year-old ought to have the wherewithal to meet the challenge.

The game management of Doak and Billy Burns will be fundamental to Ulster’s cause and will naturally be dependent on the quality of ball they receive. That, in turn, will allow Stuart McCloskey and Hume to get the upper hand on Cardiff’s strong midfield of Rey Lee-Lo and Wallis Halaholo.

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An Ulster win? It should be, but they’ll want the bonus point.


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