Sunday 22 October 2017

Blues rise above Kings-sized growing pains

Southern Kings 10 Leinster 31

Leinster’s Cathal Marsh takes on the Southern Kings in front of a paltry crowd in Port Elizabeth. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster’s Cathal Marsh takes on the Southern Kings in front of a paltry crowd in Port Elizabeth. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For the organisers of the Guinness PRO14, the scale of the challenge in expanding into new territories was fully exposed in Port Elizabeth yesterday as Leinster came and left with five championship points without anyone in this corner of South Africa really noticing.

Local side Southern Kings have had a hasty rebuilding job since they were disbanded in June and re-formed a month or so later, and their public remains to be convinced about the merits of their new venture.

Michael Bent, left, and James Ryan of Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 3 match between Southern Kings and Leinster at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Bent, left, and James Ryan of Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 3 match between Southern Kings and Leinster at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Photo: Sportsfile

The official attendance figure stood at 3,011, but the actual crowd in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium seemed quite a bit less. A rotten day, an even worse Springbok performance in New Zealand yesterday morning and the fact that the game was on live television may offer some mitigation, but given the efforts and costs involved in Leinster getting here, it left a lot to be desired as an occasion.

There is much work to be done to make this new competition attractive to the new market, but from Leinster's perspective, a third bonus-point win in three outings represented a decent day's work.

Despite losing Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson-Park to a visa oversight on Wednesday, the Blues put on a second-half surge to blow the callow hosts away, and captain Rhys Ruddock was happy with how his side put the underwhelming atmosphere out of their minds and got to work on the task in hand.

"Sometimes when there's a big, huge stadium and not a huge amount of people it can be a bit . . . you just have to bring your own energy, and the energy that they brought was probably greater than ours was in the first half," he said.

Ed Byrne of Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 3 match between Southern Kings and Leinster at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Photo: Sportsfile
Ed Byrne of Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 3 match between Southern Kings and Leinster at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Photo: Sportsfile

"That left us second-best a lot of the time, but we regrouped at half-time and then I thought the intent and the energy we brought at the start of the second half allowed us to get a foothold in the game and we grew from there."

Noel Reid's try and Ross Byrne's conversion had the visitors 7-3 ahead at the break, and they hit the Kings for three swift tries after the restart to secure the maximum return.

Sticking with their structure and remaining patient, they first struck through Rory O'Loughlin before Jack Conan and Joey Carbery forced their way over.

That took out whatever sting had been in the game, and Dave Kearney managed a fifth try before Jacques Nel managed a consolation score.

Leinster move on to Cape Town today, before making their way to the High Veld to take on the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Friday, and coach Leo Cullen was satisfied with the week's work.

"We were a little bit inaccurate in the first half," he said. "We were much more composed at the start of the second half, better in our execution and more direct with our carries. Our ball security was better, we got turned over four or five times at the ruck in the first half. There's a lot to work on. Overall we're happy."

Despite the small crowd for the first PRO14 game on South African soil, Cullen reckons the experiment can work, given time.

"These things are going to take time; it's been a difficult back-drop for the Kings but everything is set up here with a fantastic stadium and I'm sure as performances improve, the crowds will go up as well," he said.

"It's really positive for the tournament, it's amazing for us to come here. It's a privilege to come to a country with such rich and strong traditions in the game, it will be great for our league to have a South African presence."

That seems like being some years away, but it's not Leinster's problem. For the PRO14 trying to sell their new product, it's a massive headache.

Scorers - Southern Kings: Nel try; Banda pen; Coleman con. Leinster: Reid, O'Loughlin, Conan, Carbery, D Kearney try each; R Byrne 3 cons.

Southern Kings: M Banda (N Dukisa 69); Y Penxe, B Klaasen, L Vulindlu (J Nel 59), S Sithole; O Zono, R van Rooyen (G Masimla 51); S Ferreira (P Strauss 61), M Willemse (capt) (S Coetzee 74), L Pupuma (M Drever 54); S Greeff, D van Schalwyk; K Majola, V Sekekete (B de Wee 59), A Ntsila.

Leinster: J Carbery (J Larmour 59); D Kearney, R O'Loughlin, N Reid, A Byrne; R Byrne (C Marsh 59), L McGrath (N McCarthy 69); E Byrne (C Healy 54), S Cronin (J Tracy 54), A Porter (M Bent 54); R Molony, J Ryan; R Ruddock (capt) (M Kearney 62), J Murphy (J van der Flier 54), J Conan.

Referee: B Whitehouse (Wales).

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