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Connacht coach Lam sweats on fitness of injured aces for big match

By Jonathan Bradley

Connacht head coach Pat Lam remains hopeful that their injury crisis will have eased in time to face Ulster on Boxing Day.

The western Province couldn't fill their bench in Sunday's Challenge Cup defeat to Newcastle, and lost two more backs to injury during the game, but expect the majority of 11 players to come through fitness tests ahead of the first of the festive inter-pros.

A statement released yesterday said it was hoped that "most, if not all" of a list headlined by captain John Muldoon, Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion and Tiernan O'Halloran would be cleared to play.

The side, who are second only to Scarlets in the league table, will still be without Irish internationals Robbie Henshaw, Nathan White and the hugely impressive Denis Buckley.

"On our injury front we're hopeful to have a few guys passing fitness tests as late as Wednesday or Thursday and a bigger squad to choose from for the Ulster game," said Lam.

"Ulster deservedly are full of confidence following their two impressive wins over Toulouse. I watched both games and it was an unbelievable performance from them against a quality French side.

"They're the form Irish team at the moment and we understand the challenge we face with them coming to the Sportsground."

Connacht have beaten Ulster just once since 2005 - a win at the Sportsground in 2012 - but Lam is unconcerned with his side's recent record.

"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," he continued.

"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 its neighbours against neighbours so it means that bit more once the job is done."

Lam has called on the Galway outfit to be more clinical after last year's Boxing Day clash in Belfast saw Connacht end the game on the front-foot but ultimately on the wrong end of a 13-10 scoreline.

"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," said the Connacht coach.

Ulster's try-scorer from that day, Craig Gilroy, will take no part in this weekend's game after the eye-socket injury he sustained in Sunday's away victory over Toulouse.

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