Connacht head to Belfast tomorrow to face the first of two significant interprovincial fixtures in this season’s Pro 12.
Ulster, reeling from their loss to Saracens in the Heineken Cup, will be in no mood to allow Pat Lam’s Connacht to claim a rare victory in Ravenhill, while the following week Munster arrive in the Sportsground for their last match before their big cup semi-final with Toulouse.
“It is the two biggest weeks of the season for us to see how far we have come as a group,” says Pat Lam.
And, having lost control of a top six place following their narrow defeat to Scarlets two weeks ago, Connacht have it all to do to consolidate a best place finish in this season’s league.
The good news for Connacht is the return of two backrow players Willie Faloon and George Naoupu, both of whom featured in the Eagles 54-21victory over Russian visitors Enisei STM last week. Faloon suffered a severe ankle injury in Connacht’s early season fixture with Ulster and was expected to out for the entire season.
“ It is testament to the medical staff and Willie for the work they have put in. His mental toughness and commitment has ensured he is back earlier than expected, and his return is a big boost for us.”
Given Connacht’s run of form, which has resulted in four successive try bonus points, the return of Faloon is likely to be the only change to his starting line-up this weekend. Although Connacht head to Ulster knowing a top six place is out of their control, Lam insists Connacht’s focus remains in achieving seasonal milestones.
“We set ourselves milestones in every game and in Ulster it is to be the first Connacht team to win in Ravenhill in the profesional era.
“That would be a big one. They were desperately unlucky not to win at the weekend, and to go there six days later and go up against them now is a big challenge, but one we are excited about.
“There is no doubt we can expect a backlash because they are hurting - you saw the crowd and it was immense - but is also exciting.”
That Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat has also cost Mark Anscombe a number of players - the “desperately unlucky” red-carded Jarad Payne, in addition to injuries to key players John Afoa, Rory Best, Ruan Pienaar, Andrew Trimble, Dan Tuohy and Roger Wilson.
Despite their likely absences for tomorrow’s game, Lam says Ulster boast a tight defence that has never conceded four tries.
“We are the first in the league this season to get four consecutive four-try bonus points. It is testament to the boys, the skill, and the mindset collectively, but we just know it is going to take a massive team effort to get over the line, but that is what you play rugby for, to have the challenges and beat the odds.”