Connacht face a daunting task against an in-form and Lions-led Ospreys outfit which visits the Galway Sporsground on Saturday (5pm ).
One of only two sides unbeaten after the first three rounds, the Ospreys currently lie second in the table behind Glasgow. Noticeably, the Ospreys have scored some 97 points, including 10 tries, and they boast a vastly superior points differential than any other team at present.
After dishing out a 44-10 hammering to Edinburgh last week, the Ospreys are expected to arrive in Galway with their five Lions, led by captain Alun Wyn Jones, and a clear intention of grabbing another bonus-winning performance.
Connacht coach Pat Lam knows his side needs to be at its collective best to have any chance of springing a surprise, and to do that, Connacht will need to perform for a full 80 minutes.
“ It doesn’t get any easier,” says Lam. “ It’s a massive game and another step up. They [Ospreys] are undefeated, boast Lions and Welsh internationals, and there is quality throughout the team.
“Our boys were sore after the weekend because it was a big physical effort and now they are facing another one this week.”
Despite watching his side fall to Ulster last week after a poor second-half performance, Lam says Connacht are putting themselves into contention.
“The frustrating thing is that we didn’t nail two games, but the positive is that we were in both and created the opportunities to win.”
A key once again this week will be Connacht’s ability to “press ahead while in with a chance to win it”, he says. And to maintain that pressure, Connacht will be concentrating on their physicality and technique at the breakdown.
“We have highlighted it this week - it always came back to the ball carrier going into contact and the first guy coming in support. Ulster did it well, and if we face that again, I feel more confident we have tidied it up.”
However Lam has been planning this week without Willie Faloon and Jason Harris-Wright.
Faloon, who was expected to play a pivotal role in Connacht’s Heineken Cup season, was replaced in the 46th minute on Saturday with a broken foot which could put him out of action for up to six months.
“ It’s certainly going to be long term which is a real shame for us,” says Lam. “ I feel for him because he was training so well having missed the last bit of last season, he has put a lot of work in, and it was really going well for him,”
That means a step up for former u-20 All Black captain Jake Heenan who made his first start last weekend on the blindside, and Lam has not ruled out bringing in another back row player as cover.
“We have got some young guys who have not played at the next level coming through. Everything is a possibility, but dollars pending, so we have Jake [Heenan] who is a seven first or foremost, Aaron Conneely, Rory Maloney, who is straight out of school. It doesn’t help that Eoin McKeon is still out injured, so we have two experienced guys who had expected to feature a lot for us, so it’s a big hit.”
Jason Harris-Wright, who tore a bicep in Saturday’s game, could be out for a month, while Dave McSharry and Denis Buckley are back training, but unavailable. McSharry is expected to return to club action with UCD in two weeks.
The good news is that Craig Clarke, who made his debut last week, but was replaced at half time, is available for selection.
“His calf was touch and go, and we didn’t want to take a risk. It was quite a physical game, so he’s had some more conditioning and it’s looking good for this week.”
Connacht’s last remaining squad member, utility back James So’oialo, arrived in Galway this week after delays in his permit. Lam expects the Samoan squad member to be available for selection for the away game in Treviso on October 4.
Last weekend Connacht once again failed to build on a good opening half, which they led 7-5. Dan Parks finished a well-worked try after 10 minutes to become the first player to pass the 1,500 points mark in the league's history, but Ulster replied almost immediately when a break from Jackson sent left wing Michael Allan through to cut the deficit. Ulster took control of the second half to deny the home side again and outhalf Paddy Jackson took the evening’s plaudits, posting 13 points. Two second-half penalties and a try, instigated by Luke Marshall, gave the visitors an 18-7 win and their first in this season’s Pro 12.
Connacht: G Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wrigh, N White; M Swift, C Clarke; J Heenan, W Faloon, J Muldoon. Replacements, S Henry for Harris-Wright (11m ), A Muldowney for Clarke (HT ), G Naoupu for Faloon (47m ), C Ronaldson for Parks (60m ), R Ah You for Wilkinson, R Loughney for White (both 64m ), D Poolman for Duffy (70m ), P O'Donohoe for Marmion (72m ).
Ulster: J Payne; C McIlwaine, D Cave, L Marshall, M Allen; P Jackson, I Porter; T Court, R Herring ), D Fitzpatrick; J Muller, I Henderson; R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams. Replacements, R Lutton for Fitzpatrick (38m ),C Gilroy for McIlwaine, P Marshall for Porter (both HT ), L Stephenson for Williams (56m ), R Diack for Wilson (63m ), K McCall for Court (66m ), J McKinney for Allen (71m ), N Annett for Herring (70m ).
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU ).