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IRB must bankroll Italians' Magners League participation

The fate of two Italian clubs' chances of participating in the Magners League from next season hangs in the balance. A quiet sports news day then? Far from it, very far from it.

This is one of the most critical issues with which rugby in this part of the world has wrestled for some time and the outcome will be revealed in the next 10 days.

Indeed, it goes far beyond the confines of the RDS, Thomond Park, Ravenhill and the grounds in Scotland and Wales, where the two Italian clubs, Treviso and Viadana, might play from next season. It has worldwide connotations of the most important kind.

People whose judgement you can trust, like Italy's South African coach Nick Mallett, have been saying for some time that unless Italian clubs get to play at a higher level on a regular basis, then the current enthusiasm for the sport right across the country could wither and die. Mallett does not mean the Heineken Cup; to go from Italy's Super 10 competition to the Heineken Cup is too great a leap.

Rather, a tournament that spans the whole season and will expose them to higher standards on a weekly basis. That tournament should be the Magners League.

I was told by one senior Italian official last weekend, "The game is at a crossroads in our country. We attracted a crowd of 75,000 for the match against the All Blacks last November. Interest in the sport is growing. But if our players cannot experience a higher level of league rugby our progress won't continue."

However, the mood in Italian rugby circles is somewhat depressed. They believe that the plan may yet founder. As one Magners League official stated: "We need to have an understanding on this, one way or the other, ideally before the start of the Six Nations. There is a willingness to make it happen provided the conditions are right. By that, I mean commercial conditions as much as aspects relating to on the field. This has to represent added value and not reduce our competition."

In other words, the three Celtic countries want to be sure the inclusion of two Italian teams would not result in them losing out financially. Splitting the cake four ways instead of three may not be attractive. Commercial partners would therefore be needed but in the current economic climate, that could be problematic.

Thus, it seems to me, the IRB must become involved in this matter. The stakes are too high, the price of failure too expensive for the game's governing body not to be involved. The sport desperately needs to bring through another layer of good-quality countries. Scores of 108-3 and 142-0 at World Cups are no sort of advertisement whatsoever for the game.

If extra cash support through guarantees is the only obstacle to a deal here, it must be given. I can hardly think of a better cause for the IRB to spend some money on than helping ensure higher future standards in Italy.

Irish Independent