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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 September, 2004, 08:07 GMT 09:07 UK
IRFU gives League a lift
Ulster coach Mark McCall
Ulster coach Mark McCall welcomes the move on the Celtic League
The Celtic League has been given a boost with the IRFU falling into line with the Welsh and Scottish unions.

The powerbrokers at Lansdowne Road have agreed to have Ireland's Heineken Cup qualification rankings based on the final standings in the Celtic League.

That is a departure from previous years when the performances in the previous season's Heineken Cup held sway.

It now means that Munster, Ulster and Leinster will be taking more than a passing interest in the Celtic League.

The IRFU's decision will not only be welcomed by the SRU and WRU, but it will be a major boost for Ulster.

Despite success in the Celtic League over the past two seasons, Ulster have ended up in a Heineken Cup group of death as third-ranked Irish representative.

''If that is the case then it's great news,'' said new Ulster coach Mark McCall whose team take on Edinburgh in the opening fixture on Saturday.

''Every country in the Heineken Cup do it that way, and I suppose it's only right for Ireland to do likewise.

''We have gone on record before in saying that the Celtic League should be used as the European rankings.

''This will help the competition in general with people believing that we are now taking it seriously. It will make it even more competitive.

We are now in a position to put the Celtic League alongside any other club tournament in the World
Keith Grainger
''It will certainly give us the opportunity to get in there as number one seeds. We have had it tough over the years being ranked third and it's hard to get out of that position.''

Keith Grainger, Tournament Director of the Celtic League, was delighted at the news.

''This is the final piece in the Celtic Rugby jigsaw,'' he said.

''Given the new and improved TV Broadcaster deals in Ireland and in Scotland which were confirmed recently we are now in a position to put the Celtic League alongside any other club tournament in the World.

''Every one of the 110 Celtic League games will have meaning and will be a full on game of top-class rugby.''

On the other hand, Leinster and Munster will not be totally overjoyed at the proposed change.

They fear that having 10 or so internationals players on the international panel, it means that they will not necessarily be at their strongest in the Celtic League.

But that is a cyclical thing, and the strength of provinces will change over the years.

Back door

Although Ireland players will be missing for the first four weeks of the new Celtic League campaign, all provinces will hopefully see more of their international players this season.

Connacht, meanwhile, will again miss out as they are deemed as the weaker province and will again have to attempt qualification through the back door.

However, that door has apparently been opened slightly if they did manage to finish as the highest-ranked Irish team in the Celtic League.

The ERC committee is believed to have proposed that the highest-placed non-qualifier in the Celtic League meets the third-ranked Italian side in a one-off play-off on Italian soil for the final and 24th place in the Heineken Cup.

Connacht almost made the Heineken Cup last season when they reached the semi-final stage of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup only to be defeated by eventual winners NEC Harlequins.



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