Ulster revel in seasonal cheer as they eye top four
Ulster head into the festive interprovincial period buoyed by their status as Ireland's best European performers; they are the only Irish side who can glimpse the carrot of progress once the Champions Cup resumes in January.
They are also within touching distance of breaking into the top four for the first time this season in the Pro12 before European competition resumes; Connacht's challenge is to remain within the league's elite.
Eminently winnable back-to-back fixtures against basement side and Top 14 strugglers Oyonnax allows Ulster the chance to seize progress by virtue of securing a runners-up slot; the confidence of picking up the prized scalp of four-time winners Toulouse home and away will see them set their sights even higher.
Despite an opening-day spanking at the hands of unbeaten Saracens, they will eye an upset at Alllianz Park in the final round which may allow them the safer passage to a home quarter-final with a win to guarantee they can top the pool.
Until then, they will seek to maximise their progress in the Pro12 as they continue to fight a coherent battle on twin fronts in their quest for some long overdue silverware - despite the loss of key players, they remain adamant that they can do so.
Winger Rory Scholes was the latest unsung hero flung into the deep end when he arrived in the 12th minute at the Ernest Wallon last weekend during the away win against Toulouse, when international wing Craig Gilroy exited after suffering a horrific fractured eye socket following a tackle by his opposite number.
"You have to be ready to come on at any time," says the Belfast native. "It's a big onus on you to be ready to come on at any stage of the game. It was great to be able to play my part in a famous win away from home.
"I think we have now sent out a message that we can play alongside the 'big boys' of European rugby as we have always backed ourselves. We just had to show it to others and we did that over the past two weeks against Toulouse. But we now have to move on, and keep that winning culture going.
"We are certainly in a better position in Pool 1 than we were after the Saracens game. But while Oyonnax are bottom of the group, we cannot take anything for granted as they will be hurting from their defeats and they will be coming out firing when we meet them in the New Year. We just have to do what we must to get out of this group.
"There are a string of big games coming up with Connacht the main focus at present. They are ahead of us in the table and we need to get points in the Pro12 to move up from our present position.
"There are no easy interprovincials, especially away from home and particularly at the Sportsground where Connacht are unbeaten this season. There again Toulouse had an unbeaten record at home before we beat them, so that will certainly give us a bit of confidence."
Connacht's six-match winning run in the Pro12 ended with their 20-16 defeat at Cardiff Blues last time out and their injury-ravaged squad also went down in Newcastle last weekend in the Challenge Cup. However, they remain the top try scorers so far in the tournament and are also unbeaten at the Sportsground in any competition this season.
Ulster beat Edinburgh in Belfast last time out but have not won back-to-back games in the competition since April and have won just once on the road in the league in their last seven trips: 19-12 at Newport Gwent Dragons in November. Connacht's only victory in their last 18 fixtures with Ulster was a 26-21 win at the Sportsground in April 2012, although they have managed to secure losing bonus points from each of their last two matches. "You can look at our history against Ulster and only one win in nine seasons but for us, the main priority is to focus on the process of how we are going to beat this Ulster team," says coach Pat Lam, who has made 12 changes from the Newcastle game.
"Our win over Munster just reinforces the idea of focusing on the process and not the occasion. Of course there is emotion after the game because these derby games have an extra bite to them and it's neighbours against neighbours so it means that bit more once the job is done.
"We feel we missed an opportunity against Ulster this time last year at Kingspan Stadium and were extremely disappointed not to put the game away.
"We know we have to be extremely accurate or they will punish us. Nailing our detail and being clinical for 80 minutes will be crucial. That focus started on Monday.
"This fixture traditionally attracts some of our biggest crowds of the season and with the game nearly a sell-out, this weekend won't be any different. The home crowd will play a huge part in Saturday's game.
"Our first interpro is at the Sportsground and it's all set up for a great night so we need to make sure we give our supporters something to shout about. We are unbeaten at home and despite the big challenge we face on Saturday we are determined to keep that record intact going into 2016."
Ulster's challenge is to attempt to switch their focus immediately from the contrasting challenge of stunning aristocracy to the equally charged atmosphere presented in what should be a throbbing festive occasion in Galway.
"With the nature of the season, you have to come down fairly quickly," says assistant coach Neil Doak.
"To be honest you get about five minutes to reflect on the game and then you have to move on. To win back-to-back games against Toulouse is a credit to the players and it has set up the group nicely for us.
"This is certainly going to be a massive challenge for the group. However, we have been getting not only good results of late, but the performances have been good.
"What we need at Ulster now is consistency. If we keep performing at that level on both sides of the ball it is going to be key, particularly this week.
"Connacht are not afraid to play with ball in hand and defensively we have been really solid and what we have to do is put them under severe pressure and spoil their quality ball. That's what they will be looking for at home where they haven't lost this season."
Connacht - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; F Bealham, D Heffernan, N White; U Dillane, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), J Connolly, E Masterson. Reps: S Delahunt, R Loughney, R Ah You, A Browne, S O'Brien, I Porter, AJ MacGinty, R Parata.
ULSTER - L Ludik; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Scholes; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Herring (capt), W Herbst, A O'Connor, F van der Merwe, R Diack, S Reidy, N Williams. Reps: J Andrew, C Black, R Lutton, S Mulholland, R Wilson, P Marshall, I Humphreys, S Arnold.
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