Session pleases Gatland


Buoyed by last Friday night's grand finale to an interprovincial championship, which both Warren Gatland and Donal Lenihan described as "a great success", the 29man Irish squad kick-started their three-day, get-together with a double session at the Garda Rugby Club in Westmanstown yesterday.

The discernibly well pleased Irish coach smiled ironically when comparing yesterday's session with his opening week in charge last March.

"The skill levels were far more advanced than they were in the week of the French game," he said, "and the players just picked up where they left off in South Africa. I was pleasantly surprised that the players even remembered the calls from South Africa. They were very productive sessions and we still have two more to go this week."

Gatland was clearly buoyed by his witnessing of the Ulster-Connacht game on Friday night, which he described as one of the best intepros he'd ever seen, with both sides endeavouring to play rugby akin to the "Super 12s" in approach.

"On the basis of the few English club games we've seen, I'd say the provinces might struggle against the top two or three but wouldn't have anything to fear from the rest. In fact, by watching so much of the provinces it's probably meant that the home-based players have been more heavily scrutinised than the English-based players."

Only Paul Wallace was unable to attend, the Lions tight-head sustaining a haematoma in Saracens' home defeat to Wasps on Sunday. On the advice of his club doctor, Wallace did not travel until yesterday afternoon as an air flight any sooner might have accentuated the blood clot in his thigh.

There were also the inevitable "bumps and bruises" resulting in Paddy Johns, Victor Costello, Trevor Brennan, Malcolm O'Kelly and Alan Quinlan (called up late on Friday night after his outstanding performance for Munster at Donnybrook) not taking any part.

Instead they had a "pool session" with Craig White, now the resident fitness advisor to the national squad.

The squad will train at the King's Hospital school in Palmerstown at 10 a.m. this morning and tomorrow.

Meanwhile, French clubs will try and persuade their English counterparts to return to a revamped European Cup next season, the French Rugby Federation said yesterday.

The Federation said its clubs would mediate as long as the Rugby Football Union, in charge of the game in England, gave its go-ahead.

The French move follows a meeting of the European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC), which runs the tournament, in Dublin last week.

Leading English and Welsh clubs refused to take part in European club competitions this year, following arguments over how the competition should be run and its earnings shared out.

Without an English challenge, France's clubs are expected to dominate this year's competition with ease, leaving them frustrated over the lack of real competition.

England coach Clive Woodward has strongly criticised Leicester and British Lions prop Graham Rowntree for playing when unfit and warned his World Cup squad to play only when fully recovered from injuries.

Rowntree came on as a substitute for Leicester at Saracens earlier this month after an injury-hit start to the season, and earned the wrath of the national coach.

"I've had some pretty heavy words for his 30 minutes of stupidity," Woodward said yesterday as England held their second squad session of the season in the build-up to the World Cup qualifiers against Holland and Italy next month at Huddersfield.

"I told him: 'You were crazy.' It was a bad call and since then he has gone around apologising to everybody concerned - club and country. It was his own call and he has been honest about it.

"I'm not holding any grudge against Graham who will be considered for our World Cup matches next month when he gets fit. But you have to be really professional."

Rowntree said: "You learn from your mistakes. I felt fit and passed a fitness test on my knee medial ligament injury, but it was blatantly obvious when I got on that I was not right against Saracens.

Woodward's irritation was increased because he felt let down by players like Lawrence Dallaglio - restored as captain - and Kyran Bracken for continuing to play in the club's pursuit of trophies last spring when they were clearly unfit.