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Barker ready for 'a massive test'

By Gavin Mairs

Ulster lock Tim Barker is determined that the province will bury their Heineken Cup frustrations by cementing their place at the top of the Magners League.

With Llanelli's clash against Newport Gwent Dragons postponed last Friday because of fog, Ulster still top the table by three points but have played two more games than the Welsh region. And with eighth-placed Connacht the visitors to Ravenhill tonight (kick-off 5.30), Ulster can extend that lead to eight points if they manage to win with a four-try bonus point.

That would heap the pressure on Llanelli, who look set to beat Ulster to a place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals following the province's slip-up at London Irish.

And Barker, who is set to make his first start for his province tonight since November, insists Ulster are ready to hit the festive season running, with a mouth-watering trip to Leinster at Lansdowne Road on New Year's Eve also looming large.

"Connacht is a massive test for us," said Barker. "We need to win to stay at the top of the table and then we have got Leinster who are also in the top half.

"We really need to be on the top of our game. For Connacht to travel up here on Boxing Day, they will be really fired up and they always put in a big forward battle so it is going to take a lot to beat them."

Barker came off the bench in Galway when Connacht gave Ulster a late fright by scoring three tries at the death to claim a losing bonus point in the 24-17 defeat in October.

And Barker believes the spirit Michael Bradley's side showed should serve as a warning for the home side tonight.

"It was terrible conditions down there, very much a forward battle and Ulster were winning well but Connacht came back and never stopped fighting," added Barker.

Mark McCall is still to confirm three starting places for tonight's clash with Barker expected to get the nod ahead of Matt McCullough in the second row.

There is a chance Paddy Wallace could get a rare start at out-half ahead of David Humphreys but the more likely scenario is that Humphreys will start with Wallace, having been away with Ireland last week, getting significant game time.

Paul Shields is also in line for a start at hooker, with Rory Best set to be rested.

Meanwhile, David Gannon, Ray Ofisa, Colm Rigney, Chris Keane and Darren Yapp all come into the Connacht side.

Ryan Strudwick, Matt Lacey, Michael Swift, Conor O'Loughlin and Ted Robinson are the players dropping out.

ULSTER: B Cunningham, M Bartholomeusz, P Steinmetz, K Maggs, A Trimble, D Humphreys/ Paddy Wallace, K Campbell, J Fitzpatrick, P Shields/R Best, S Best (capt), J Harrison, M McCullough/T Barker, N Best, N McMillan, R Wilson.

Replacements: P Shields/R Best, B Young, M McCullough/T Barker, K Dawson, I Boss, D Humphreys/P Wallace, T Bowe.

CONNACHT: D Riordan, D Yapp, P Warwick, G Williams, K Matthews, Mark McHugh, Chris Keane, Brett Wilkinson, John Fogarty (c), S Knoop, D Gannon, A Farley, J Muldoon, R Ofisa, C Rigney.

Replacements: A Flavin, B Sturgess, M Swift, M Lacey, C O'Loughlin, J Hearty, T Robinson.

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