Ulster Academy coach Kieran Campbell's inside track on Connacht's success
While this PRO12 season will be remembered as one when the west truly awoke, one Ulster coach saw the start of Connacht's growth first-hand during two years at the Sportsground.
Now head of the Academy, Kieran Campbell made over 100 appearances for Ulster before moving to Galway in 2008.
Capped by Ireland three times in 2005, the former scrum-half moved knowing his career was in its latter stages but even then could see that the future was bright for an outfit who just five years before faced extinction.
Now Pat Lam's men sit proudly atop the standings.
Ahead of his old side travelling to Belfast on Friday in search of a first away win over Ulster since 1960, Campbell recalled: "It was an enjoyable time and they're unique. They have their own ways and means.
"One thing that's strong is the team spirit. As a collective unit they're second to none. They've really built on it this year. The results they've achieved, beating Leinster last week at home, it's all fully deserved for the work they've put in.
"You can see how the home-grown players have provided the backbone and in some respects the heartbeat. Those strings were evident even when I was there."
In Ireland's Six Nations victory over Italy this month, Connacht had five players on the field at the final whistle. While RDS-bound Robbie Henshaw is the undoubted jewel in the crown, Campbell points to the others who had slipped through the cracks elsewhere.
Ultan Dillane was born in Paris and reared in Munster, Kieran Marmion was born in England and grew up in Wales and Australian Finlay Bealham first popped up in Belfast while the fifth international, Nathan White, is a Kiwi who couldn't crack the Leinster first team.
"They've provided a springboard for young guys from other provinces," said Campbell. "People go there, get experience and become much better players.
"Now they've found a way to blend that with experienced talent and great signings as well."
With the restrictions on foreign signings put in place by the IRFU, Campbell stresses the importance of successful Academies in all the provinces if we are to see a return of Irish dominance in Europe's top competition.
"Irish rugby is geared towards indigenous boys coming through. We want them to do well for the province but also for the national team," he said. "World class signings, like Charles Piutau and Marcell Coetzee, are fantastic.
"You need those to maintain your position in Europe but it needs to be heavily supplemented with home-grown talent.
"You have boys like Stuart McCloskey who have gone on to be capped by Ireland and the likes of Jacob Stockdale as well, getting five or six caps on the bounce with the senior team.
"At Ulster, we're in a good position. We're not close yet to where we need to be but we're moving in the right direction."
A first Connacht win in over 55 years at the home of Ulster Rugby would be disastrous for the hosts. With a late flourish, and favourable results elsewhere, needed if Les Kiss' men are to make the top four, there is no margin for error.
"It's been great for Connacht and they've got momentum… I hope we can put a stop to it," Campbell laughed. "There's no sentiment this weekend, you can be sure."