IRELAND'S test players are set to get fitter, stronger, faster and more powerful than before. For next season, it's expected that they will have a 10-week 'pre-season' ? the training period where the real advances in conditioning can be made ? as against four weeks up until now. This will mean Ireland will now be effectively on a level playing . eld with the southern hemisphere nations. But it also puts the provinces under even more pressure.

Already, there have been noises of disapproval over player availability ? Leinster and Munster were miffed about an unscheduled Ireland training camp just before Christmas. Then this week, Ulster coach Alan Solomons let fly at Eddie O'Sullivan over the late release of players for Friday's crucial Celtic League game against the Celtic Warriors.

"It's prejudicial to Ulster's chances and it's prejudicial to the players also," Solomons fumed in The Belfast Telegraph. "Eddie's just suiting himself." In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether the IRFU will provide the provinces with further contracts to cope with the absence of the international players.