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Your country needs you

Donal Lenihan Lions manager

But are Irish fans keeping their passion for the provinces? asks Donal Lenihan.

SAME PLAYERS, same nationalities. Yet such has been the impact of the Heineken Cup that this year’s Six Nations championship has been demoted to the secondary place in the hearts of many hard-core rugby supporters.

On Saturday, Ireland launch their latest assault on Six Nations glory when they host Italy in Dublin. After the hype surrounding the recent performances of Munster and Leinster in Europe, it is not surprising that the Italians roll into town almost unnoticed.

Due to the demands of television this game kicks off at 1.30pm, which in some respects has added to the apathy surrounding the fixture. That said you can be sure that Lansdowne Road will be full to capacity when Brian O’Driscoll leads out his charges. Full houses are also guaranteed for the visits of both Wales and Scotland. While Ireland are almost certain to launch their campaign with a victory, much of the interest in this year’s campaign will be dictated by how Eddie O’Sullivan’s team perform in Paris on Saturday week.

For years the Championship, or the Five Nations as it was in the old days, was the highlight of the rugby calendar. The advent of fully professional provincial squads in Europe has provided the general public with a highly credible alternative.

Comparing the Heineken Cup and the Six Nations is a bit like asking a GAA player which matters most to him, his club or his county. Certainly, in the case of Munster, there is a feeling within the large support base that this team is as close as it gets to following your local parish. It is personal. The tension and passion that were so vividly in evidence in Thomond Park against Sale is seldom replicated on the international stage.

When Wasps and Munster played in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup in Lansdowne Road in 2004, the atmosphere and colour on that day was like nothing we have seen when the national team plays.

In the quest for survival in the professional era, many of the clubs have been forced to sell their ticket allocation for the big internationals to the corporate sector. As a result, international rugby has become more of a day out where the result in itself is almost secondary to the social event for many in attendance. In Europe, the result is everything. Defeat elicits a frenetic response while victory induces a feelgood factor that lasts for days.

The expansion of the Celtic League has resulted in a regular fixture list for all the provinces. A core support now follows Munster, Leinster and Ulster to the detriment of the international game. It is the equivalent of the guy who follows Manchester United with a religious fanaticism, but is somewhat indifferent to the performance of England’s national side.

While it hasn’t quite reached that level in rugby circles yet, ask a Munster support would he prefer Munster to win the Heineken Cup or Ireland to win the Triple Crown or Grand Slam? In the majority of cases you will receive a short, sharp answer.

Much of this has developed because, at provincial level, the intimacy of the grounds at Ravenhill, Musgrave Park, Thomond Park, the RDS and the Sportsground in Galway allow the support to touch and feel their heroes. With the possible exception of Dublin, the players are highly visible entities on the streets of Limerick, Belfast and Cork. The sense of ownership is stronger.

Having said that, from a player’s perspective, there is no substitute for the sense of achievement and responsibility when representing your country. It is a highly personal thing.

For the national squad, success on one front automatically produces rewards on the other. The feelgood factor generated by qualifying for the knockout stages of the Heineken cup will fuel Ireland’s assault on the Six Nations Championship. The experience generated from winning away from home in England and France in particular can only benefit the national side on the road. This could well be a huge factor this season as a result of Munster’s win in Castres and Leinster’s success in Bath.

Were Ireland to beat France in Stade de France, one can be sure that the hint of apathy will be blown away overnight. With both Wales and Scotland visiting Dublin, there is every possibility that Ireland will face the closing game of this year’s tournament in Twickenham with a Triple Crown at stake against the old enemy. That prospect is sure to set the pulse racing.

For now, until the championship reaches full flow, the rugby public are still suffering from a European hangover. Victory and a positive performance against Italy is sure to blow away the cobwebs for the more exciting challenges that lie ahead.