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Ireland can only benefit from successful Heineken showings

Niall Crozier

ALL things considered, the past week hasn't been a bad one for rugby supporters in Ireland.

Once more Ulster, Munster and Leinster are in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, with the first two of the Irish trio enjoying home advantage against Saracens and Toulouse respectively, while the third go to Toulon.

And Connacht certainly were not disgraced; they won three of their six Pool 3 games and finished with 13 points, a better return than Castres Olympique, Ospreys, Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow Warriors, Scarlets, Racing Metro, Montpellier, Edinburgh, Perpignan, Treviso and Zebre.

Along with Toulouse and Toulon, Clermont too are in the last eight, bringing France's representation to three.

In Leicester Tigers and Saracens, England managed to provide the best two second-placed clubs in the six pools. One wonders if they ever question the wisdom or desirability of the system into which they are currently trying to herd the four Welsh regions? What exactly do the English imagine their Aviva Premiership is delivering?

In the past 10 seasons, it has produced European champions twice, most recently in 2007.

But in tandem with another thus-far very good European campaign by the Irish provinces, the news that Sean O'Brien, Paul O'Connell and Keith Earls have signed new IRFU contracts is another massive shot-in-the-arm for the game here.

O'Brien was on the wish-list of several cash-stuffed French clubs, capable of offering wages beyond the IRFU's budget.

The fear was that with Jonathan Sexton having departed for the green fields of France, last season, others would follow.

It was imperative that the Union did not permit a Welsh-style exodus and, to their great credit, they appear to have ensured there will be no such development. Take a bow, IRFU chief executive Philip Browne.

Doubtless during his time back among them for the Guinness Series Tests in November, Sexton's Irish team-mates will have heard straight from the figurative horse's mouth what exactly French employers demand.

Those same players are smart enough to have noted the stand-off's relentless work schedule since crossing the Channel. The French may pay big bucks, but in exchange they appear to demand a kilo rather than pound of flesh. The grass on the other side isn't always greener...

Belfast Telegraph


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