Connacht's hopes blunted by Aki absence
Whatever chance Connacht had of winning in Belfast for the first time went out the window when the decision was taken to send Bundee Aki for surgery on his injured ankle.
Ulster looked somewhat vulnerable as they contemplated a five-day turnaround, but now they will be looking for bonus points if the weather plays ball tonight. Aki is that important.
The Guinness Pro12 champions are not a one-man team, but the Samoan centre is their talisman and in his absence there is a massive hole in their midfield.
Winger Danie Poolman will attempt to fill it and the South African has a giant job on his hands opposite a pair of international centres who will look to test him and the inexperienced Rory Parata at every juncture.
Pat Lam has described this week as the most difficult of his time coaching Connacht due to the high number of absentees from training.
His injury count is at 21 now, while a number of players were ill, meaning the starting side have not had a chance to train together and he has chosen to leave Tom McCartney and Ultan Dillane on the bench with the New Zealand-born hooker wearing the No 17 shirt and covering the loosehead position.
Despite the short turnaround, Les Kiss is able to retain many of his front-liners from Sunday's tough defeat to Clermont as Rory Best, Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson all start.
Tommy Bowe, who picked up a knock late in that game, is on an experienced bench and although there is a weather warning in place for Belfast tonight they will hope to have enough in the tank.
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Connacht have been getting closer on their recent trips to the Kingspan Stadium, but without Aki it appears unlikely that this would be their moment. Still, Lam is keeping the faith,
"Beating Munster away, was a good one last year. For everybody, for us, it's a big one to beat Ulster up there," he said.
"In the context of where we want to be at the end of the season, the points are crucial - there's another four or five.
"We know we haven't won up there but that excites us as an opportunity.
"But in the context of where we are in the table, in eighth place, we could close the gap there as well. There is a lot to play for."
Although he and his team will approach the game with some confidence, they will also be fully aware of what happened when the sides last met in Galway.
"Physically, we did not start that game where we wanted to," the Australian recalled.
"It's something we have to be aware of, we know Connacht are a very physical side and they like to play a bit of footy, but you have got to meet them up front, that is the way they play their game and they play it abrasively and we have to meet it up front to be in with a chance.
"The weather forecasts are fairly bleak, but both teams would like to express themselves. Even if the rain holds off it could be a good affair. It is a packed-out stadium so hopefully it's a good affair."
Kiss has paired Kieran Treadwell and Iain Henderson together in his second-row and it's unfortunate that the Irish coaches won't get to see the latter do battle for Dillane over the course of the 80 minutes.
The Kerryman was outstanding against Wasps but, perhaps due to player management, drops to the bench for the trip north as Lam attempts to juggle his resources during the festive period.
Treadwell will definitely interest the national coaches. A former England and Ireland underage international, the 21-year-old arrived from Harlequins last summer and after biding his time he's now getting his opportunity to impress in the first team.
"He has done well in recent games, He has come here from Harlequins and has worked hard in terms of his physique and game knowledge here and the opportunities he has been given lately he has done brilliantly, that is very good," Kiss said.
Given the expected conditions, it is likely to be a night for the tight five and Connacht will look to exploit Ulster's recent scrum problems.
Rodney Ah You starts at tighthead and the Westerners know all about his varying strengths and weaknesses, while Kyle McCall's absence will be felt on the loosehead side.
Ruan Pienaar and Jackson will look to control things from behind a steady pack, with Roger Wilson returning to the No 8 jersey add ball-carrying ability and take the load off Henderson.
With Connacht playing catch-up, they can ill-afford a big loss and quietly Lam would probably take a losing bonus for his Christmas present.
Kiss will be aiming to put pressure on the top four with a home win. In Aki's absence, he should get his way.
ULSTER - C Piutau; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Best (capt), R Ah You; K Treadwell, I Henderson; C Ross, C Henry, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, C Black, W Herbst, F van der Merwe, S Reidy, P Marshall, D Cave, T Bowe.
CONNACHT - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Parata, D Poolman, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; Q Roux, J Cannon; S O'Brien, N Fox-Matamua, J Muldoon.
Reps: S Delahunt, T McCartney, JP Cooney, U Dillane, E McKeon, C Blade, C Gaffney, N Dawai.
Ref - G Clancy (IRFU)
Ulster v Connacht,
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