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English should stop whinging

By Niall Crozier

Ireland's 2013 British and Irish Lions are due to return to action next weekend. Round four of the RaboDirect PRO12 will see those who returned from Australia as victors restored to the ranks of their provinces.

Finally we will get to see Ulster's Tommy Bowe and Rory Best, Leinster's Sean O'Brien, Brian O'Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Cian Healey, plus Munster's Paul O'Connell and Conor Murray on PRO12 duty.

The timing of the return to action of the Lions is particularly interesting. The English clubs' players were first to show, with most of them having taken part in pre-season warm-up games ahead of the start of the Aviva Premiership.

Wales have been drip-feeding their men through, with the timing in each individual case seemingly left to the discretion of each of the four regions. The two Scottish districts, Glasgow and Edinburgh, reintroduced their Lions' players last weekend.

All of which means that the Irish boys get more time out than their counterparts in any of the other three home nations.

Ireland's Player Management Programme, under which the IRFU decides who can play when and for how long, was introduced in the hope of ensuring those asked to perform at international level would be in peak condition when called to do so.

Has it worked? Well, since winning the Grand Slam in 2009, Ireland's finishing positions in the Six Nations Championship have been second, third, third and fifth.

In the same seasons, 2009-2013 inclusive, Wales – smaller population than Ireland – have finished fourth, third, fourth, first and first, with a Grand Slam for good measure in 2012.

Now, given the depth of England's player-base, they might be expected to out-gun the Welsh. But second and second in the past two seasons does not trump first and first, leaving one to wonder who is getting it right?

That is true of the situation in Ireland, too, of course. And it has to be said that of late the IRFU's strict management of players' game time has failed to bear any real championship fruit.

Against that backdrop, though, the fact remains that as well as winning the Heineken Cup in 2009 when Irish rugby appeared to be better placed than at any time in its history, Leinster also lifted the European club game's biggest prize in 2011 and 2012 when the national side's fortunes were in decline. So to what extent are the two parties dependent on one another? Good question.

Right now a Heineken Cup/Amlin Challenge debate is raging, with the French and English clubs insisting that the nature of the series in which the Irish provinces, Welsh regions, Scottish district and Italian franchises compete, favours those PRO12 sides in Europe. It is their belief that the absence of relegation enables PRO12 outfits to rest their players ahead of Heineken Cup action.

There are several aspects of the Anglo/French argument with which I agree, but this is not one of them. Bar 2011/12 when Edinburgh put all of their figurative eggs in the metaphoric Heineken Cup basket, I can think of no example of a side doing well in Europe but not in their own bread and butter competition.

The French and English fire regarding Heineken Cup success is trained on Ireland, given that Welsh, Scottish and Italian sides have no great European pedigree. So consider this: when Munster won Europe's top prize in 2006 and 2008 they finished third in each of those seasons' Magners League campaigns. Relegation threat? Not an issue.

Leinster's league positions in the three seasons in which they conquered Europe were third in 2009, second in 2011 and first in 2012 whereupon they lost the play-off final against Munster. Again, does that suggest a province withholding players from PRO12 action in order to preserve them for European conflict?

I wholly agree with the English and French clubs when they say it is wrong that 11 of the one dozen PRO12 sides are included in the Heineken Cup based on where they play rather than how well they play. But I disagree when they insinuate the Irish provinces' Heineken Cup record is down to them being able to rest players. That is nonsense.

And although – on the international stage – the Welsh appear to be onto something in trusting their regions not to overwork their players, the record of those same regions in Europe is pretty dire.

So, priorities? Club or country? Well, that's a very different debate for another day.

Belfast Telegraph

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