Football: Republic face China and Italy in qualifier warm-ups

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The Independent Online
THE Republic of Ireland are to host China and Italy at Lansdowne Road. Brian Kerr's side will face the Chinese, ranked 54th in the world, on 29 March - with the game coming only three days after the Republic play Israel in a World Cup qualifier in Tel Aviv.

It will be the second time the Republic have played China - the previous encounter was in 1984 in Japan when the Irish won 1-0. Italy will visit on 17 August, with Ireland looking to improve on a record of one win and seven defeats. The Republic's only victory came the last time the two teams played, Ray Houghton scoring the only goal in a 1994 World Cup fixture.

The August fixture will serve as a warm-up to the qualifying matches to follow. Ireland meet France on 7 September and then round off their Group Four campaign in Cyprus on 8 October and at home to Switzerland on 12 October.

Elsewhere, Leeds have been urged to make a move for the West Bromwich Albion striker Rob Hulse. Hulse, who last week rejected the chance of a move to Stoke, has since been linked with Elland Road. The 25-year- old, who was Albion's top scorer last season with 13 goals, has barely figured for the Baggies this campaign. Leeds would offer an acceptable escape route for Hulse, according to his agent, Steven Hughes, who said: "Leeds are the type of team that Rob would look for, but above all he wants to play football. He's not getting that chance with West Brom even though he was their top scorer last season."

Leeds defender Stephen Crainey faces a make-or-break fortnight which will determine whether he requires surgery to cure a long-term injury. The full-back has been out since October with a condition known as osteitis pubis, which affects the pelvic area and causes pain after exercise.

A decision to defer surgery was made to allow the injury time to heal and Crainey is now running again. The Leeds manager, Kevin Blackwell, said: "It is looking a bit better for Stephen, but we've got to give it another couple of weeks and take it from there."