Injury crisis lifts as Connacht face league leaders

Connacht No 8  Eoghan Masterson is tackled by Devin Toner and Josh van der Flier in the New Year's Day Pro 12 fixture.

Connacht No 8 Eoghan Masterson is tackled by Devin Toner and Josh van der Flier in the New Year's Day Pro 12 fixture.

Finally some good news on the injury front for Connacht as they head into crunch Pro 12 and European fixtures this month.

Ireland international squad members Robbie Henshaw and Denis Buckley are expected back later this month, while Peter Robb, Danie Poolman, and James Connolly are fit and available for Sunday's pivotal Pro 12 fixture with leaders Scarlets.

With no major injuries following the Leinster match, Pat Lam was a relieved coach this week, particularly as Connacht head to Llanelli for a top of the table tussle with Scarlets on Sunday.

Centre Peter Robb, one of two players elevated from Academy to a senior contract this week, has cleared return-to-play protocols after concussion in the European loss to Newcastle last month, while wing Danie Poolman and flanker James Connolly have recovered from rib and hamstring injuries respectively.

"Denis Buckley is out of his moon boot, and will hopefully be ready for the return Scarlets match at the end of the month, possibly Enisei, which is the target date for him," says Lam. "while Robbie [Henshaw] has an X-ray on the 12th (next Tuesday ) and hopefully, on the back of that, he will be good to go."

And with hooker Tom McCartney and openside Jake Heenan back in action last weekend, it is a timely boost for Connacht ahead of key fixtures this month that could determine Connacht's season in both Europe and the Pro 12.

Connacht head to Scarlets on the back of three Pro 12 defeats, and having never won in Llanelli since 2004, but Lam insists that Connacht remain in a good place.

"Everyone has played 11 games bar Glasgow and Leinster, so we got to the half way mark and we are third, two points off the top with nine teams covered by 12 or 13 points. What a great competition.

"There are lot of positives for us. I am not into winning or losing streaks but into how to win games and get points. The bottom line is we have an end goal where we need to get to at the end of the year. We currently sit third on the table, two points from the top, so the question is; are we on track at the moment to get to our goal, remembering all the injuries we have had and remembering the time of the year, are we still in touch? Yeah we are in a good place."

With the Scarlets clinging onto pole position after their fourth defeat in both competitions last weekend, there is much at stake for both sides in Parc y Scarlets on Sunday.

"They have lost the last four games as well, so no doubt back at home they will be up for it. They have quality players, they have a big squad, are well coached, and they have been leading, between us and them, throughout the competition, so it's going to be a good game.

"It is two good teams that are both coming off a run of losses. We are sitting one and three with two points between us, so this game will determine a lot going forward. It's not make or break, but it has importance in the context of where everyone sits, so it is important we focus on the process to give ourselves a chance."

Having lost to Leinster on New Year's Day by 13-0, Lam says it was another missed opportunity, but once again he applauded his players for the tremendous defensive effort.

Connacht, against the wind, were just 3-0 down at the break, but a decision to award Leinster a try once again cast controversy on the result.

Lam, however, says Connacht need to be more ruthless.

"When we look at the game and break it down, we gave away six points for being offside - jumping the gun early - and obviously there was the try decision, so if you take that out, how did we get into those situations. A lot of the time we didn't control the ball at crucial times. Three-nil was a tremendous effort, but we took 32 minutes before we had any opportunity to play in their half, into the wind, but the energy was great.

"The second half was about playing in the right ends of the field, and I think every time we did, we either turned the ball over or got penalised, and it was not until 56 minutes into the game when we had a genuine attack from which we could launch and then we dropped the ball, gave a penalty away in the scrum, then missed the ball in the air, made a defensive error, and then they are down within five metres of our try line.

"It was unbelievable defence. The commitment, the body language stopped them, and that summed up the game - we can talk about the decision, but the fact that they got it came on the basis of us dropping the ball and giving away a scrum penalty and making a defensive system error, and that is what we can control and those are the learnings how to get better."

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