Connacht look to avoid post Christmas blues in Belfast

Kieran Marmion in action at the RDS. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Kieran Marmion in action at the RDS. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Connacht head to Kingspan Stadium looking for some rare Christmas cheer from the traditional local derbies in the Guinness Pro 12.

Having fallen short in the RDS Arena on Friday evening, Connacht now face Ulster on St Stephen's Day (6.45pm ) with hopes of a long- overdue win in Belfast.

Despite losing to Leinster by 21-11, Connacht remain in the qualifying sixth place after Scarlets lost their pre-Christmas clash with Cardiff by 21-9 and, if Pat Lam's side want to consolidate that position, they need to get something out of their visit north.

However Ulster too are coming into the match on the back of defeat, and will demand a similar response to Connacht on Friday. Their 31-20 loss to new league leaders Ospreys at Liberty Stadium saw Neil Doak's Ulster side leapfrogged by Leinster into fourth place, ensuring Friday's fixture is a fifth versus sixth for a second week running.

As always history suggests Connacht will come up short, but the western province is overdue a win in Ulster. On too many occasions Connacht has headed north with both hope and confidence, but has let the occasion stymie the performance. Perhaps to some extent that also occurred on Friday night intheRDS-apoorfirst20 minutes proved costly and a massive Leinster defensive effort kept Connacht at bay for long periods.

As a result the expectation that has fueled increasing enthusiasm in Connacht Rugby went unrewarded, although at times Connacht were desperately unlucky - most notably Danie Poolman's superb effort to touch down from Jack Carty's cross-field kick before going over the deadball line. In contrast Kirchner benefitted by the bounce of the ball at the close of play which denied Connacht even a losing bonus point.

Despite that frustration, Pat Lam said Connacht had showed courage once again to remain in contention until the 77th minute.

"One thing that is in line with the season and I am proud of, is that for 77 minutes we had a chance and that is credit to the team," he said. "Yes, were were disappointed we did not get something out of it with the bonus point, but proud that at 77 minutes we had put ourselves in with a chance after all the pressure that was put on us."

It was a poor opening 20 minutes for the visitors with the concession of a host of penalties and the binning of Aly Muldowney for pulling down in the line-out. Inevitably it led to Leinster's opening try with Shane Jennings touching down from a drive in the 12th minute.

Five minutes late outhalf Jimmy Gopperth, having missed the conversion, sent a penalty through the posts after Connacht were pinged for a deliberate knock-on.

It took 20 minutes before Connacht created any momentum, and although Leinster's quick defence kept them at bay, Connacht were rewarded with two penalties - the second of which Jack Carty converted to open the scoring after 30 minutes. The visitors remained in control until the break, but could find no way through with Poolman denied despite his best athletic efforts. However with Leinster's Tadgh Furling yellow carded, Carty adding the penalty to close the gap to 8-6.

It was a strong recovery from Connacht after a stuttering start, but Leinster added two penalties early in the second half to regain control. Although struggling to make headway against the wind, Connacht created sufficient opportunities, but their failure to protect the ball proved pivotal. They were finally rewarded in the 72nd minute when George Naoupu finished a strong forward drive, and although Carty missed the conversion, Connacht looked like getting something for their efforts. However when Gopperth sent the ball up the touchline from turnover ball, the quick- thinking Zane Kirchner pounced after Healy kept the ball in play - denying Connacht a deserved bonus point for the efforts.

"We came back in the second half against the wind and probably needed toscoreatryanditwasa tough ask, but even then, we held them out," said Lam. "In the second half it was always going to take a mighty effort because the wind was really strong, but we hung in there, chipped away, and missed a couple of opportunities. But you have to remember we were playing a quality side and the intensity was high."

Lam says Connacht now "need to win" against Ulster.

"That is the thinking, so we need to recover."

Yellow card: Aly Muldowney (Connacht ) 10 mins; Tadgh Furlong (Leinster ) 39 mins; Devin Toner (Leinster ) 73 mins.

Connacht: M Muliaina; D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You; Q Roux, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt ), E McKeon, G Naoupu. Replacements: W Faloon for McKeon (67 ), D Leader for Muliaina (62 ), U Dillane for Muldowney (68 ), R Loughney for Buckley (70 ).

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