Wednesday 13 December 2017

Brendan Fanning: South African experiment has been short on chemistry so far

16 September 2017; A general view of branding during the Guinness PRO14 Round 3 match between Southern Kings and Leinster at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
16 September 2017; A general view of branding during the Guinness PRO14 Round 3 match between Southern Kings and Leinster at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the post-match interview after Leinster’s win over Edinburgh last weekend, Fergus McFadden was reflecting on his side’s trip to South Africa to play the Kings and the Cheetahs.

By any standards, the mini tour hadn’t been great. From the administrative cock-up over visas, to Cian Healy’s flight issues, to the defeat in Bloemfontein, Leinster were glad it was all in the rearview mirror.

Even the training facilities weren’t all up to scratch, McFadden said. But he reckoned there was some silver lining on the cloud. Since beating Leinster the Cheetahs had gone on to beat Ospreys. That had to be good for the competition, didn’t it?

On Friday night in Bloemfontein they took on Glasgow — in front of 6,000 people — and lost a tight game. Enough to sustain the locals you’d have thought but the bizarre bit is how the crowds have got worse as the results got better. The sequence versus Zebre, Leinster and Ospreys saw the attendances go from 14,000 to nearly 7,000 to almost 6,000. How reliable those figures are is not clear, for the Kings’ figure of 3,000 against Leinster looked more like 300. Whatever, in a rugby-mad country bidding for a World Cup, it’s not good. And given the circumstances — where the alternative was no cross-border outlet at all after both franchises had been dumped by Super Rugby — it takes some explaining.

“I think it’s a combination of things,” says Robbi Kempson, the former Bok who served with distinction in Ulster. “Relatively speaking, rugby in Bloemfontein is not well supported, even in Currie Cup and Super Rugby. They weren’t seeing 20,000 people at Super Rugby games, that’s for sure. And I don’t think we can expect crowds to increase much over the short term.

“Another thing is that South Africans don’t know a lot about the Pro12 or Pro14. I was lucky enough to have played in it and I appreciate it but I don’t think it’s being marketed suitably for the locals. Even last week (against Ospreys) a few British and Irish Lions were playing and nobody knew they were in town. I think a lot more can be done. Other teams are constantly getting information out there about their players but in South Africa it’s limited.”

This wasn’t quite what we expected. Clearly a competition with two very late entrants is going to have some teething problems, but — oddly enough — lack of interest from the new lads wasn’t a selling point at the launch in Dublin last month.

Kempson concedes that the two men and a dog who greeted Leinster onto the field in Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth was an embarrassment. They have bigger issues in that neck of the woods. For example, when we came across Kempson on Ireland’s tour of South Africa last summer he was heading up the Kings’ Academy.

Despite relatively meagre resources they were punching well above their weight against the frontline provinces, churning out a decent stream of players. The Academy has since been shut down. So while some of that talent have found homes elsewhere, very little of it will be on their own patch.

“I think the future is limited,” he says. “The team they’re buying in will be much better than what they had in Super Rugby. The Super Rugby conference with Australia was a joke, and if you’re not winning those games then you won’t win (any) in Super Rugby.

“So the Kings will have more talent but most of the players we brought through have gone to other provinces, with quite a few to the Blue Bulls and to the Sharks. For whatever reason head coach Deon Davids doesn’t seem to see the benefit of the kids who came through the Kings Academy. The funding has been eroded, for the want of a better word, from SA Rugby and the new executive that’s taken over Eastern Province Rugby, so the under-structure of EP Rugby has completely fallen away. The Southern Kings is an entity on its own which SA rugby is keeping afloat.”

It’s a million miles removed from the model that obtains here. That’s hardly a concern for our provinces except that they want to be part of a competition that’s as good as it can be. And the South Africans have a mountain to climb in presenting themselves as folks who are enhancing the product.

“From the Free State point of view, I think it will pick up as time goes on and locals get to know the quality of players they’re watching,” Kempson says. “So that will get better. But the Kings, I can only apologise for South Africa for the lack of a crowd given the team that was involved (Leinster) and that it was kicking off the competition here.

“The marketing is poor and the majority of the players they’ve selected aren’t locally-based. And that does make a difference. Being from Dublin and playing for Leinster is much better than having Irish ancestry and coming from Italy. For them to get any traction they have to start winning games, and it’s hard to see that in the short term.”

With Europe front and centre for the next fortnight, the South African teams get a chance to regroup. Then the Kings are in Glasgow and the Cheetahs in Italy. Lots of air miles but not much of a holiday.

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