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Peter Bills: No future for Magners if Italy left out - Kirwan

Preventing the inclusion of two Italian clubs in the Magners (Celtic) League from next season would only be the act of someone who doesn't care about rugby, a top ex-All Black said yesterday.

John Kirwan, who won 63 caps for New Zealand between 1984 and 1994, is one of the All Blacks' greatest wings. He also happens to be an ex-coach of Italy and understands rugby implicitly in that country.

Kirwan, now coach of Japan, offered complete support for the idea of Italian club inclusion, an issue with which Magners League officials are now wrestling. "I think if someone stops this, they don't really care about rugby. That's what I believe," he said.

"Rugby needs to keep going through competition. I think it's fundamental that the two sides enter into the Celtic League. It's going to help Italian rugby. It's also going to help the other nations. Now why would Scotland, Ireland or Wales put their foot down? Are they scared that Italy's going to get better and beat them?"

Finance, let alone anything else, ought to propel the Celtic Nations into welcoming the Italians with open arms, he suggested.

"Let's just talk about it from a monetary point of view. There are 65 million people in Italy and you've got a total of 15 million through the other Celtic nations. So if you use your brain and bring Italy in, in 10 years' time... well, just look at the possibilities.

"No one can ever take away Scotland's heritage, no one can ever take away Munster's heritage, no one can ever take away what you've already constructed over the last 120, 130 years of rugby. So, don't be scared. Involve everyone and it's a true competition."

Grow

Kirwan offered a pertinent analogy with the Japanese team he coaches. "We've been playing in the Pacific Nations Cup for the last five years. We used to get beaten by 60 points. But last year, we lost by one point to Fiji. People understand the difference and get better. This game has to grow. We can't just look after our own backyard.

"I think that teams like Treviso will get better if they play week-in, week-out against Munster, against Edinburgh. And if they don't? Well, then they're going to have to keep working hard.

"I think the vision of the game is through competition. So let's include teams from Italy, grow the Celtic League, because it's going to die if we don't.

"Because where are you going to go? Where are you going to go to grow your market? The English Premiership survives because of the population. If we're going to call on 65 million people and all the possible sponsors ... there's a lot of possibilities. But for the good of the game, we need to be more competitive."

Kirwan also offered an intriguing assessment of the Italian national side as the Six Nations Championship approaches.

"I think that the Italians have matured. I think they've got a very mature team that can do well."

And the other countries? "I think Andy Robinson is an outstanding coach and believe he's going to bring a lot to Scotland. I think he'll get them organised and they'll be very difficult to beat, especially at home. Andy's going to sort out Scotland, they'll be a lot more competitive.

Beauty

"At the end of the day, everyone's got to do their job properly, certainly have their teams improving at least, same as England, same as Scotland. That's the beauty of the Six Nations, it's the greatest competition but I think this year it's going to be the closest, for sure. I think that England have had their challenges, trying to rebuild a side for the World Cup."

Wales? "Warren Gatland is annoyed at last year and from what I can gather, he wants them to play an expansive game, he wants to play wide, he doesn't want to play this kicking (game) too far. I think we're all a little bit upset about the whole kicking situation. So he's going to take a courageous look to the Six Nations and try and play real Welsh football rather than kicking between 40 and 48 times."

And what about Ireland?

"Well, I thought Ireland was always a great side and I think Declan has really brought a solidness to them from a technical and tactical point of view. This Munster team that he had before won everything and he's brought a combination of knowing when to play it tight, knowing when to kick it and when to use the wide game a lot better.

"So Ireland has become more complete since he came on board. I think they're favourites.

"We don't really talk about the French when we talk about the Six Nations but they're always thereabouts, winning. I think the French want to win the World Cup so they're going to make sure that they've got the combination of young and old.

"They'll settle down in this Six Nations and they'll always be there or thereabouts."

Irish Independent