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Santa Steinmetz out to deliver gifts for Ulster

By Gavin Mairs

As the rest of us scramble around making last minute preparations for Christmas, the Ulster rugby squad's focus has been on a hugely-important week that will have a major bearing on the province's defence of their Magners League title.

Two inter-provincial clashes in the space of five days will fully test Mark McCall's squad in terms of resolve and robustness as Ulster aim to take out their Heineken Cup frustrations by cementing their place at the top of the league.

The visit of Connacht to Ravenhill on Boxing Day (kick-off 5.30pm), represents the half-way stage of the league campaign. Ulster currently lead the way from second-placed Llanelli but their three-point advantage looks precarious given that the Welsh region, who look odds-on to progress to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals at the expense of McCall's men, have two games in hand.

Such a context, particularly given the fact that just five days later Ulster must dust themselves down for the trip to Lansdowne Road to face Leinster in the 'Land Stand' showdown, will ensure that festive celebrations are diluted for the players.

"We have had the disappointments of the Heineken Cup not quite going the way we wanted but now we have the focus of a important week coming up in the Magners League," said Ulster centre Paul Steinmetz.

"There have been disruptions this week with the Ireland boys away on training camp and also Christmas but it is up to us to make sure we deliver the goods against Connacht on Boxing Day and make sure we give the crowd a spectacle. Christmas Day isn't quite a big a deal for us foreigners because we don't have our families around but I won't be eating any differently. It will be slightly different in that the boys can't have a few drinks but that is just the way it is."

Given that a large proportion of McCall's squad have been in Portugal this week as part of Ireland's training camp, the Ulster coach will only get his full deck of players back for what will be an extended captain's run on Christmas Eve.

Connacht at least have the benefit of having had less disruptions to their squad, although that perhaps is off-set by having to travel to Ravenhill on the day of the game.

Either way Steinmetz is expecting a tough but hopefully entertaining encounter.

"It would be nice it the weather stays fine as we haven't had a breath of wind of the last few days and hopefully we will have the conditions to move the ball around," he added. "We know they like to play a wide game so it should be a cracking game."

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