Lion at heart of new Europe

Owen Slot speaks to a Leinster man continuing his comeback in Milan
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The Independent Online
THE BRAVE new world may, for the moment, be sidestepping England, but in Europe this week there will at last be concrete evidence of it. To some, the opening fixture of the European Rugby Cup may seem more like a step back in time - Toulouse play away to Farul Constanta, the Romanian club where all too recently the post-match baths were taken in the Black Sea.

Elsewhere it is being enthusiastically hailed as a leap forward. Munster have been on tour all week to prepare for the match and in Ireland ferry tickets are selling out for their opening away fixture against Swansea.

The sense of hope that the new competition brings will be experienced particularly by Vinnie Cunningham, the 28-year-old British Lion whose comeback from career-threatening injury continues on Wednesday when Leinster play away against Milan.

Twenty-one months ago, in a game for his club side, St Mary's College, Cunningham cut back inside from the centre and took the ball into a ruck at the bottom of which his knee was horribly twisted. His injury was similar to that sustained by Tim Horan, the Australian centre, but there the similarities end. Horan was back playing in the World Cup; Cunningham has been back for six months but has not even made the latest Ireland squad of 37.

Cunningham, who has 16 Ireland caps, appeared to be making strides when he came back for St Mary's at the end of last season, but his improvement has gone no further. As Ciaron Callan, the Leinster coach, conceded: "He isn't yet back to where he was before. He has appeared to be getting there; hopefully the new competition will take him the rest of the way."

Callan himself has already reaped the benefits of the European Cup - in the form of a reconnaissance trip to Italy four weeks ago. "We'd never seen any Italian sides before, so we had to go," he said. What he saw was a Milan side demolish Padua with an extremely tight game and an all- international front row.

The intelligence work of Gustavo Milano, his opposite number, is less up to date - he last saw Leinster play in February. Nevertheless, his faith in his team gives weight to Callan's belief that it will be no easy fixture. "I have a good and strong side," he said. And is Diego Dom-inguez, the Italy stand-off, his best player? "They are all my best player. I have 15 best players."

This may be the case now that David Campese is longer playing for them. Benetton Treviso, the other Italian side in the competition, still have Michael Lynagh registered for them and there is no reason why they should not fly him over if they qualify for the later stages of the competition. That is the sort of grand gesture that will become part of the brave new world.