The final PRO14 preparation game for Andy Friend's Connacht squad sees them heading to Munster for the return A fixture at Thomond Park on Saturday (3pm ).
After suffering a three-point defeat to their Munster counterparts at the Sportground on Saturday, Friend says this week's return match in Thomond Park will be the last opportunity for senior players to stake a claim before Connacht's 2020/21 PRO14 start against Glasgow on October 3. That fixture, scheduled for a 5.15pm kick-off, sees Connacht at home in what has become a familiar opening pairing with the Scottish side. And with a visit to Cardiff seven days later before a break for European rugby, it will be important Connacht players are match ready to ensure a positive start.
As a result Friend is expected to name a strong side against Munster A, while also giving some players another chance to shine.
"We certainly have not made our minds up as to what that opening team is going to look like," says Friend, "so there's another 80 minutes to play this week and there will be a lot of blokes trying to push their case, and that is exactly what we want."
Last weekend was needed to give certain players an opportunity in a competitive outing, but next week he will be changing it up in a last push before the league starts, and "hopefully seeing a winning performance from those men".
This season's Pro14 League, with its fixtures published yesterday - and only then up until Christmas - does not feature the South African sides, one of which, the Southern Kings, has gone into liquidation. PRO14 bosses say they are looking at a replacement team from 2021 from one of its current professional sides.
In addition, with the suspension of Super Rugby due to Covid-19, the two organisations are also looking at an expanded format with more South African teams - those that used to play with the other SANZAAR nations. This could increase the competition to a possible 16 teams - but given the world-wide pandemic, those scenarios are just that at present.
They also will not be occupying Connacht's minds at present, as all attention will be focused on Saturday's last warm-up - not just an opportunity for players to impress, but to produce a cohesive winning performance that will take them into the Glasgow fixture with confidence. The two interpro games against Ulster and Leinster, which completed last season, were real tasters of what is ahead - not least getting to grips with changes in laws, particularly at the breakdown where Connacht struggled. But Saturday's final warm-up will give Friend a clearer picture of where his side is, both as a team and individuals.
Character and expression
With some 12 new additions - a handful promoted from the academy ranks - Friend, now in his third year, has been forced to cut his cloth in Covid times. Yet, he also believes there is more than come from his players this season.
"I am excited by the squad we have now, and also the Academy players coming through. It takes time to build the squad - each coach who comes in has his different style, but I am expecting good things this year."
Last weekend they produced a solid display against Munster A in what was a real mix of youth and experience, and for the most part, they looked like they were on the same page despite the Academy players' late introduction to the squad.
"We only had the Academy boys in on Wednesday [due to Covid testing], and my view is the team that adapts the quickest and stays the healthiest is the team that is going to win. So a lot of the young blokes only had two days with us. But one of the pleasing things is the quality coming out of Academy, really good young footballers, and we saw them on show, so to Eric Elwood and Mossy Lawlor, and the whole staff, the players they have managed to identify is very exciting for them and the future of Connacht."
Friend has worked with Academy bosses Eric Elwood and Mossy Lawler to tailor this season's A programme to benefit senior players.
"It is an A programme and normally Eric and the Academy coaches are coaching it, but with Covid we were not going to get access to any more pre-season games, so we had a collective discussion and said we needed to use these two games for the pro team in order to get ready for the season.
"We will coach this week, and then we will pass it back to the Academy. We are all very tight and all on the same programme, so we are just trying to get our pro team ready for the first game here."
"Despite the 19-22 loss in what was Connacht's first match at the College Road venue in 31 weeks, Friend says it was a gutsy display with character and expression.
"First of all, it's great to be back. Unfortunately we did not have the crowd, but it was great to be playing rugby and the sun was shining which was a plus. It was a loss, which we are never happy with, but at the same time the performance was good, it was gusty.
"We made errors which we knew we were going to make. There were a lot of young blokes out there, so they will learn from that. But in terms of a first hit out, I thought the tries we scored showed good character, and there was a lot of expression out there from those fellows."
"We had a lot of other opportunities, but simple errors - we missed two kicks to touch off penalties, we had a few five metre line-outs we didn't find the mark, and so we certainly left a lot out there, so disappointed with the loss, happy with the performance."
Former Munster backrow player Conor Oliver took over the captaincy, scored the opening try after nine minutes - a player, says Friend, who is a " great acquisition for Connacht - fearless, gives a lot energy, and that is what you want your skipper to do".
Ben Healy touched down for Munster before hooker Diarmuid Barron profited from a pack pushover. Although 20-years-old Diarmuid Kilgallen finished a superb attack from a quick tap, the visitors extended their lead to 17-12 with a penalty before the break. Connacht's pack produced a try on 60 minutes with replacement prop Jack Aungier touching down to take a 19-17 lead, but Munster delivered the decisive blow when Barron added his second try.