It is a big week for Connacht Rugby as they host the first of the festive interprovincials at the Galway Sportsground with the visit of Ulster on St Stephen's night (6pm ).
These traditional derbies have never been anything but intense, but this year Connacht's Champions Cup ambitions could well rest on maintaining their unbeaten record at home, no matter the opposition or the history.
Coach Pat Lam and his squad returned from Newcastle in the earning hours of Monday morning knowing there will be little Christmas festivities this week as they prepare for an Ulster side arriving after two superb back-to-back European victories over Toulouse. While Connacht have suffered two losses since their famous win over Munster at Thomond Park, Ulster have gathered momentum after a poor European start. As a result they arrive at the Sportsground as favourites again.
However Lam will be more concerned with assessing the current crop of injuries - Peter Robb and Danie Poolman being the latest two - and putting out his best available side. It is expected several players who have been sidelined through niggles for the two Newcastle fixtures, will be fit and ready to play, including captain John Muldoon, fullback Tiernan O'Halloran, centre Bundee Aki, wing Matt Healy, scrumhalf Kieran Marmion, props Nathan White and Ronan Loughney, hooker Tom McCartney, lock Ultan Dillane, and flanker James Connolly. If fit, most can expect to line out, along with players such as Ali Muldowney, James Masterson, Craig Ronaldson, Finlay Bealham, Rory Parata, Dave Heffernan, Jack Carty and Niyi Adeolokin. Flanker Jake Heenan is progressing his return to perform, and he could be in line for a possible bench start depending on injuries elsewhere, while Api Pewhairangi is also back from injury, having featured for the Eagles.
The picture certainly looks considerably rosier than it did a couple of weeks ago, but Lam will be mindful of the demanding schedule over the next few weeks - three away trips on the trot to Leinster, Scarlets, and to Brive - a game Connacht must win now to secure Challenge Cup qualification after Sunday's 29-5 defeat to the Falcons.
"It is still in our control," says Pat Lam of European qualification, " and we knew that going into this game. No mattered what, we have to go to Brive, and if we do that job, and against Enisei at home, we will go through. We have that breathing space, so we just park this competition and pick it back up in mid January, and now we have three big games, Ulster, Leinster and Scarlets."
Connacht still lead pool one of the Challenge Cup, but the door now has been thrown wide open for the qualification. In grabbing the bonus point, Newcastle have moved level with Brive on 11 points, now just two behind Connacht, ensuring all three sides have everything to play for in the remaining two rounds.
"When you look at the situation we faced, we played some good rugby. Losing Peter Robb early didn't help because there was a big shift in the back line, and there are guys who haven't played much rugby. There is a reason we play good rugby and that is on back of lessons learned.
"We competed really well and should have been further ahead at half time, and then we just didn't use the wind, so there is a good lessons there. It was 65 -70 minutes before we kicked to the corners, and we should have been doing that from the start."
It proved an injury too many for Connacht, robbed of 19 European squad members and fielding a host of Academy players. However Lam says his youngsters were neither clinical nor composed.
Having dominated the opening half, Connacht failed to post sufficient points, going into the break level on 5-5. But a nightmare start to the second half with the concession of two tries in the opening five minutes, put them on the back foot, and the Falcons took control to post their second European win of the season.
"There were lot of guys out there who no doubt we wanted to put through the Eagles games, but we had to put them out there. But there are still no excuses not to finish some of those opportunities off, and at the end of the day, we had the chances early on, we didn't nail them, and then we had to defend some good attack.
"Newcastle played some good rugby in the second half, and we fell off tackles, and there was a big momentum shift.
"Not having a TMO is hard for everyone," Lam says of the early try denied to Masterson, "but we just weren't clinical enough or composed. At half time it was about being in the right end of the pitch and putting the pressure on, but we didn't use the wind well and turned ball over. Probably the big call was the penalty try, so to concede a penalty try plus and lose Masterson was a big point."
Once again Connacht were not helped with yet more injuries to their back line. Both centre Peter Robb and Danie Poolman were forced off, and with only two replacements available, scrumhalf Caolan Blade finished on the wing, with replacement Jack Carty at fullback.
In a blistering start, Connacht carved out two try-scoring opportunities. Eoghan Masterson, from a superb break, should have opened the scoring within two minutes, but was harshly penalised for double movement, having crashed over, while a hugely defensive Falcons repelled Connacht's attempted rolling maul from a penalty to touch after some promising carries from the Connacht backline.
Despite the possession, however, Connacht could not find the same fluidity as previous outings, particularly after Robb was forced off, necessitating another rearranged back line after 11 minutes.
Newcastle, having lived off scraps in the opening 15 minutes, bagged the opening try in their first visit to the 22. From a turnover, it was England sevens exponent, Marcus Watson, whose dancing feet evaded some six would-be Connacht tacklers to open the scoring in the 23th minute, against the run of play.
Connacht replied after 34 minutes when fullback Danie Poolman crashed over to bag his fifth try in six games to level the game at half time.
However it all changed after the break. The first sucker punch came from a penalty try when Eoghan Masterson was yellow carded for not retreating, and referee Whitehouse awarded the try. It was a controversial decision given that the tap did not appear to have been taken from the back of the scrum, but with Willis adding the extra, it put Connacht on the back foot.
Within five minutes, a lost Connacht line-out provided Newcastle with another attacking platform, and a stretched Connacht defence could not stop centre Belisario Aguilla crossing in the left corner.
Craig Ronaldson missed a long range penalty before but Whitehouse awarded a second penalty try, and Willis converted to wrap up the fourth try bonus, extending their lead to 24-5. A minute later Watson finished off an unlikely counterattack from deep which Connacht simply failed to halt with some porous defence.
Yellow cards: E Masterson (41 )
Connacht Rugby: D Poolman, R Parata, P Robb, C Ronaldson, Adeolokun, S O'Leary, C Blade, C O'Donnell, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You, D Qualter, A Browne, S O'Brien, E Masterson, C Naoupu ©.
Replacments, J Carty for Robb (11 ), I Porter for Blade (47 ), F Bealham for Ah You (53m ), C Blade for Porter (52 ), S Delahunt for Harris-Wright (54 ), A Muldowney for Browne (64 ), S Meungargia for O'Donnell (69 )
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales ).