Lam insists Connacht are focused ahead of Ulster

In a testing week for Connacht, both on and off the field, Pat’s Lam squad now faces the most difficult challenge against title-chasing Ulster on Saturday (2.40pm ).

It is the first of three home fixtures against top four teams, and with Ulster just two points off Pro 12 leaders Glasgow, they travel, with their internationals, intent on returning to the top of the table.

However Pat Lam’s side, which has never dropped out of the top six all season, know that a win over the third Irish province would be a huge boost. And having beaten both Leinster and Munster at the Sportsground, Saturday is an opportunity to claim an historic hat-trick in one season.

“It would be massive for Connacht, in the context of where we have come from and where we want to go. Last year we won no derby games, but to get the wins against Leinster and Munster was fantastic, and to do all three would be a bit of history,” he says.

A huge boost is the return of centre Bundi Aki who has been out for 11 weeks. A player with x-factor, his partnership with Robbie Henshaw will be crucial on Saturday. Eoin McKeon will also come back into the reckoning, as does prop Ronan Loughney. There remain question marks over the availability of Andrew Browne (shoulder ) and key line-breaker Matt Healy (rib ), while Mick Kearney has been ruled out for the next six weeks.

Connacht have good reason to be positive heading into this weekend’s clash, says Lam.

“It’s a massive game, but what is exciting all the boys is that it is now April, it’s round 19 with four games to go, and mathematically we still have the chance to make the top four. To be playing rugby that has so much riding on it is exactly what we want for this young group and is testament to the work the boys have put in.”

“We know we have an uphill task but what gives us confidence is we are at home, it’s our Sportsground, and we have done it before - against the odds over teams stacked with internationals.”

If Connacht want to maintain their top six position, nothing but a win will be acceptable. As always, they are up against it - they have not beaten Ulster since 2005, but their form this season suggests that 10 year barren spell could be broken. They recorded one of their best results in Belfast earlier in the season, losing by 13-10, and Connacht know that was an opportunity lost.

Connacht are capable of winning this match, and the difficulties the team has faced since last Friday could well make this close-knit group all the more determined.

They certainly cannot afford to have another poor first half which cost them dearly against Gloucester in last Friday’s 14 - 7 defeat in the European Challenge Cup quarter-final.

Connacht were left to rue the concession of two soft tries and they left Kingsholm Stadium knowing they did not do themselves justice in that opening period. Some poor kicking and missed line-outs did not help, allowing the home side to gain a foothold. And when James Hook cut through the defence on the counterattack, it set up Jonny May, for the try, which scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw converted.

And the bounce of the ball led to try No 2 when Hook's deft chip fell horribly for Robbie Henshaw, and the in-rushing Billy Meakes strolled in for a 14 - 0 lead after 31 minutes.

However the second half proved different as Connacht’s breakdown work improved, their ball handling looked more secure, and their scrum was, as always, a key factor. From a penalty to touch, Muldowney secured possession from the line-out and the unstoppable maul forced a penalty try, which outhalf Jack Carty converted.

Having kept the home side scoreless for the second half, the game came to life. The home side looked decidedly wobbly as Connacht continued to attack, but eventually time ran out, ending Connacht's hopes of a fourth Challenge Cup semi-final.

Connacht: M Muliaina, T O'Halloran, D Poolman, R Henshaw, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, D Buckle, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Muldowney, A Browne, E Masterson, J Muldoon. Replacements, D Leader for Muliaina (34m ), G Naoupu for Browne (44m ), C Ronaldson for Poolman (52m ), I Porter for Healy (63m ).

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