After nearly two years inaction, women's rugby is returning, and Connacht senior women's XV will open their Vodafone Interprovincial Championship at the Sportsground on Saturday (2.45pm ).
Connacht host Leinster in this first of a series of three games which has been reduced this season due to Covid. However, the big boost for the women's game is that all interprovincials will be broadcast live on TG4, and for the first time since February 2020, 500 spectators will be allowed into the Sportsground.
It has been a long wait for Connacht women's coach Ross Mannion, who says it is an exciting time for the players who are now receiving recognition for their commitment .
"Yes, it is still an amateur game for the women, but this is a real step in the right direction," he says. "It is brilliant to get the recognition for the commitment and sacrifices these players having been putting in."
Missing from this interprovincial series will be Ireland's international players due to a World Cup qualification tournament. Delayed due to Covid, it now takes place in Italy next month, so Mannion will be without six players, including Béibhinn Parsons, Edel McMahon, Laura Feely, Nichola Fryday, and Aoibheann Reilly and Meabh Deely. However, the Sligo man will be looking to his captain Mary Healy, Nicole Fowley, Shannon Touhey, Nicole Carroll, and Catherine Martin to lead by experience in a squad that also boasts a lot of youth.
Leinster have traditionally been the stronghold of the women's game, and Mannion accepts it will be a new test.
"It is going to be a challenge. All four provinces are highly competitive, and the appetite is huge because of not having played for some time."
His mantra this season is to "play without inhibition and go out and play the best game you can". Add in the presence for the first time of live television, and the coach says it will only have a positive effect.
"As long as the players go out and leave nothing behind, we have a good chance. I believe the potential is huge in this group."
The former Sligo Rugby coach, whose led his club to All Ireland League division 2C honours, is also Connacht Rugby's participation officer. As such he is familiar with the potential in the province with players from Sligo, Westport, Galwegians, Ballinalsoe, and Creggs involved with his squad. He says the numbers of girls and women playing the game have mushroomed in recent years and there are hopes to establish more outlets for them, including U18 and women's leagues within the province, while also having a team in a women's All Ireland League.
Many of the less experienced players have had little game since their introduction to the Connacht squad, but Mannion is encouraging them not to get overwhelmed by Saturday's occasion after such a long break from competitive action.
To this end they have looked at Connacht's most inspiring women, such as Queen Maeve, Mary Robinson, and Grainne Mhaol for inspiration. Women, he says, who fought for their rights and won, and were able to leave a legacy. The potential for Connacht Women's Rugby is similar.
• The Connacht U18 girls begins their series with an away clash to Leinster on Sunday (1pm )
The full 2021 Connacht squad is: A O’Brien, A Ryder, C Martin, C Farrell, D O'Halloran, E McNicholas, E Taite E Gavin, E Fabby, E McCormack, F Oviawe, F Scally, G Moran, H Coen, J Loftus, J Bauer, K Feehan, L Brady, M Healy (cpt ), M Scally, M Walsh, M Griffin, M Cawley, M O'Grady, N Carroll, N Fowley, N Cassidy, O Dixon, O Murray, R Gavin, R Heery, S Heapes, S Tuohy, S Rigney, U Sammon.