Ireland's Lenihan to step down after visit of Wales

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The Independent Online

It is a truth universally acknowledged in professional sport that when a team is on a winning run, the manager's job is safe. Rugby union, however, begs to differ. Typically of this contrary sport, professional rugby just does not do the expected.

So it is that Ireland's long overdue rash of victories - three on the bounce in the Six Nations to date with the final match at home to Wales tomorrow - heralds the departure of their manager, Donal Lenihan. After two years in the job, Lenihan, 41, is stepping down with a year to run on his three-year contract because he has been appointed the manager of the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia next year, and the workload would be impossible if he tried to do the two jobs. Also, as the manager of the Lions, he will be expected to travel the length and breadth of the British Isles watching and talking to players.

Lenihan has had mixed fortunes in his time in office - a disappointing Five Nations campaign last year, a reasonable tour to Australia that summer, before the misery of the World Cup when Ireland were booted out in a close quarter-final play-off against Argentina.

"It has been a very enjoyable two years apart from one or two hiccups along the way," said Lenihan, who won 52 caps at lock in a distinguished 12-year playing career.

But this inaugural Six Nations tournament has seen a marked rise in Irish fortunes, and the former Lion added: "This is my last game as manager. The last three have gone very well, I just hope we can finish with a win tomorrow."

His successor looks like being either the Munster manager, Brian O'Brien, or Ulster's coach, Harry Williams, the Ireland A manager. Meanwhile, coach Warren Gatland's immediate future looks secure. The Irish Rugby Football Union is believed to be on the verge of offering the New Zealander a new two-year contract when his present deal expires after the Wales game.

The International Rugby Board is today expected to announce a tightening up of the laws governing player eligibility in the wake of the scandals which have hit Wales and Scotland, when it emerged that Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson, who had 33 Welsh caps between them, and Scotland's David Hilton and Peter Walton, did not have documentary proof of their grandparental claims to the respective nationalities.

The IB is also expected to put in place a semi-permanent standing committee to oversee every eligibility case and investigate all claims thoroughly. The fate of the Welsh Rugby Union and the two players is unlikely to be known until such time as a disciplinary panel has been set up to hear the cases.