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Connacht set to be brought back down to earth by high-flying Ulster at Ravenhill

ERIC Elwood's decision to step away from the all-consuming influence of Connacht Rugby in his life has come like a hammer blow to the province.

Thankfully, the Galwegian has given the club all the time in the world to examine where they are going and who is the man most likely to take them there.

It does seem like a strange time for Elwood to announce his withdrawal at the end of the season, just when Connacht has managed to import some solid, mature professionals, like Scot Dan Parks, and look like producing quality indigenous players.

Indeed, Elwood's declaration that 19-year-old Robbie Henshaw "is a special player" was one borne out of clear excitement for what the Marist College Athlone man can bring to the province.

It is one thing to beat a depleted Leinster at home in The Sportsground, quite another to contemplate a smash-and-grab at the home of the current PRO12 leaders Ulster.

New coach Mark Anscombe made a strong impression at the launch of the Heineken Cup on Tuesday. He had all the appearance of a man who would not back away from confrontation.

His reputation as a player was one of brute determination and will of character. This will fit snugly into Ulster's 'set-piece first' mentality. There has been so much made out of their back-three cutting edge, the growth of fly-half Paddy Jackson, 20, and Monday's return of half-back extraordinaire Ruan Pienaar.

For all that, the grunt work of the front five, led by captain Johann Muller, and the front-foot ball provided by a giant back row of Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Nick Williams will be the basis for profit from the season.

Connacht will come in search of three successive wins over the other Irish provinces for the first time since 1956.

That is not likely to happen.

Verdict: Ulster.

Ulster: J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris, C Henry, N Williams.

Connacht: R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney, M Swift, M McCarthy, D Gannon, W Faloon (capt), G Naoupu.