Blair makes up for Irish absentees

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Ben Blair, a distinctly useful full-back from All Black country with four New Zealand caps in his kitbag, has arrived safe and sound in Cardiff in readiness for the second half of his career.

This is reassuring news - not only for the Blues, who are long overdue a decent campaign, but for the newly-branded Magners League, which needs all the class acts it can get in light of the decision by the Irish hierarchy to keep their big-name players in purdah for the first five rounds of the tournament.

Munster, who welcome the Border Reivers to their Thomond Park home this evening, will resemble the team that won the Heineken Cup last season in the way John Prescott resembles Brad Pitt.

Only two members of the starting XV against Biarritz at the Millennium Stadium in May, the full-back Shaun Payne and the centre John Kelly, will be involved against the Scots. The rest, the Ronan O'Garas and Peter Stringers, the Jerry Flannerys and Paul O'Connells, are either injured or under house arrest until they complete their mandatory recuperation.

The fact that summer will have run into autumn and pre-season into mid-season by the time they lace up a pair of boots is apparently of no consequence to the powers that be in Dublin.

Quite what the sponsors make of this is anyone's guess. More to the point, how does the paying public see it? Not through rose-tinted glasses, presumably. The Irish, who have pulled this stunt for years, will argue that they tend to do very nicely in the competition, irrespective of which players they put on the field.

To be sure, they filled the first three positions last season. This, however, says more about the Welsh and the Scots than about the likes of Munster, Leinster and Ulster. On the basis that it is impossible to fool all the people all of the time, the Irish union's dismissive approach is unsustainable.

The major contest today brings Newport-Gwent Dragons together with Ulster, the champions, at Rodney Parade. The Belfast men will be at strength, if only because their contribution to the national team is significantly less than that of Munster and Leinster, while the Welsh side will give Colin Charvis, the flanker who once captained the Red Dragonhood, a debut following his departure from Newcastle.