'We have no problems with Ireland'

Leicester find it easier to negotiate across the water than down the road.
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The Independent Online

Premiership joint-favourites Leicester have had no problem in resolving the club v country conflict. With Ireland, that is.

Premiership joint-favourites Leicester have had no problem in resolving the club v country conflict. With Ireland, that is. Geordan Murphy, the sparklingly talented Irish full-back, has had his season mapped out under an agreement between the Tigers coaches and their counterpart in Dublin, Eddie O'Sullivan. Now all Leicester have to do is sort out at least a dozen of their England-qualified players. "There seems to be a lot of distance between the clubs and the RFU," said Pat Howard, newly returned to Welford Road as backs coach.

Murphy will be on parade at Sale this afternoon, but the plan is for him to sit out a home match in the European Cup, and two in the Premiership, and generally take one week off in four. "The hope is to look after these players, to give them a longer career," said Howard.

The 30-year-old Australian has witnessed every side of the argument - as a player-coach in his previous spell at Leicester, as a centre in Super 12 with ACT Brumbies and the Wallabies, and, last season, playing in France for Montferrand.

"The RFU have come up here and measured players," he added, "but the fact that England's a little bit all over the place at the moment has made it more difficult. I've not had the same problems with the IRFU, but obviously we're dealing in different numbers there."

While news was breaking on Thursday of Sir Clive Woodward's resignation, Martin Johnson and Neil Back cut beatific figures at Leicester's training ground, which, with a state-of-the-art training centre, is geared to adding to the four Premiership and two European titles won between 1999 and 2002. Johnson and Back have stepped off what Lawrence Dallaglio called the "treadmill" of combining club and international duties. They have enjoyed the benefits of a proper pre-season, which in typical Leicester fashion included a fair old dust-up in a trial match.

"The structure of the season is a mess," said Back. "The players are caught in between club and country. I would advocate giving the players more involve-ment in saying what's best, but we do have representation though the PRA [Professional Rugby Players' Association]. I can understand both sides. The clubs need their best players, week in, week out. It's the same for international teams."

Johnson, looking tanned and fit apart from an ice pack strapped to his knee, is no more able to offer a solution. "They're asking too much of the players, it's as simple as that," he said. "You tell people in the southern hemisphere that we all played for our clubs the week after the World Cup final, and they can't believe it. They thought we'd have three months off."

Johnson clearly has little faith in the Elite Player Scheme, which is designed to map out a schedule of work and rest similar to that Leicester have arranged with Ireland for Murphy. "There's a long [Lions] tour at the end of this season," said Johnson, "then we'll be into 2005-06, and people will start talking about the 2007 World Cup. It is tough."

Asked if he sympathised with Woodward's position, Johnson replied: "I sympathise with the players. Clive's not playing 45 games a year, is he? The international coaches don't get the players as much as they want. But it's difficult for club coaches. John [Wells] and [Dean] Richards had seven England forwards away from Leicester for the first half of last season. I don't know what the answer is, but there's got to be one. There's lots of talk about it, but nothing seems to happen."

Australian he may be, but Howard's eyes light up when he describes the progress of Leicester's 18-year-old wing Tom Varndell, a 6ft 3in product of the club's academy and Colston's School. "Tom is by far the quickest player in our squad," said Howard, "and an England prospect in the next two or three years. We want him to play for England, and there's a fairly simple answer - as long as there's no clash between the international and club matches, most clubs would support the international cause. The Premiership is a feeder to the international game, but if the international game takes away too many days, you depower the Premiership, and clubs just won't buy English players. In three or four years you'll have no one to pick from, and you'll be picking second-string players for England."

Nothing would stick in Johnson's craw more. "I hope all our guys who've got international aspirations play for England, because that means they're playing well for their club. Is it fair that those guys are lost to their clubs for six or seven games as a result? Of course it isn't, and something needs to be done."