Saturday 24 February 2018

Guinness PRO14 experiment under pressure as paltry crowd turns out to see Leinster slay the Kings

Southern Kings 10 Leinster 31

Luke McGrath, left, and Seán Cronin 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 by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
Luke McGrath, left, and Seán Cronin 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 by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O'Connor in Port Elizabeth

This was billed as a historic occasion, but the extent of the job the Guinness PRO14 has in its expansion mission was laid bare in Port Elizabeth this afternoon.

An early second-half surge allowed Leinster comfortably beat local side the Southern Kings to maintain their 100% start to the season, but the real story was the banks of empty seats in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

The 2010 World Cup venue is a magnificent arena and an asset to the city of Port Elizabeth, but there appeared to be far, far less than the official attendance of 3,011 people actually at this game.

It cost a small fortune and numerous logistical headaches to get the Irish province across the world and it is hard to tally that effort with the lack of local interest.

Perhaps the bug will catch in time but one would have thought the curiosity at least might have put a few more bums on seats that cost as little as €3 in some sections in a city that came out in force to support its team in Super Rugby.

When the Sharks came to town, they attracted 22,000, the final game against fellow PRO14 new boys Cheetahs saw around 10,000 come through the gates as the axe hovered over the Kings.

Entry to this league saved their professional status, but it is going to take much, much more than existing to make this a viable proposition.

A difficult start by a whole new club, the poor weather, a record hammering for the Springboks this morning and the fact that the game was being broadcast live will be trotted out as excuses, but this was a slap in the face to the new competition.

The game itself was a lacklustre affair for long stretches, particularly before half-time which was perhaps forgivable given the lengths both teams had travelled to be here since their games in Ireland last weekend.

Against the backdrop of banks of empty seats, the home side opened the scoring after four minutes when Masxiole Banda sent over a penalty from right in front.

Leinster hit back with a Noel Reid try as they stretched the locals with their passing game, before the inside centre stepped inside and forced his way over for the first PRO14 try on South Afrcian soil.

Ross Byrne converted, but despite the poor crowd the locals were up for their first home match and were causing Leinster problems at scrum-time, allowing them to establish field position for their dangerous backline to stretch the visiting defence.

A Yaw Penxe foot in touch prevented Oliver Zono from marking his debut with a try, but a scrambling Leinster rear-guard was given notice of the danger that lurked when the Kings had possession.

Yet the half proceeded with both sides following error with error, neither team could get any fluency going in their game until Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan got their hands free in successive tackles and Reid chipped in behind only for scrum-half Rudi van Rooyen to beat Adam Byrne to the ball.

That was as good as it got and an underwhelming 40 minutes concluded with the score at 7-3 to the Irish side.

Leinster emerged from the dressing-room with renewed focus and Jordi Murph’s strong poach forced a penalty that allowed Ross Byrne put them in the opposition ’22 and they struck after a couple of hard forward carries as Rory O’Loughlin stepped outside winger Yaw Penxe to score.

Ross Byrne missed a tough conversion, but the increase intensity meant they wouldn’t regret that mis and it wasn’t long before Jack Conan powered through van Rooyen’s poor tackle to score a third try and bring a bonus point within touching distance as Byrne added the extras.

The visiting side were finding joy in behind the Kings’ back three and when Masixole Banda fumbled McGrath’s chip the men in blue had the position to go for the bonus point score.

Their first maul attempt earned a penalty that allowed Byrne find touch closer to the line and they followed their own template, carrying hard through the forwards before moving it wide where Joey Carbery forced his way over.

Byrne converted and Carbery thought he had scored another after Reid picked off Godlen Masimla’s pass and raced clear but the Television Match Official spotted a Cian Healy knock-on in the build-up and chalked it off.

The Kings extolled plenty of effort trying to get a try of their own, but the Leinster defence held firm and instead it was they who struck for their fifth score of the day as a simple wraparound move from Cathal Marsh on Reid opened up space for Dave Kearney to cross in the corner.

The locals finally got something to cheer about as full-time approached as Zono caught a pair of defenders napping and went around them, before feeding Jacques Nel who scored and Ntabeni Dukisa converted.

Leinster went for one last try, but the final act of a disappointing occasion came with James Tracy being held up over the line.

They move on to Cape Town, before moving to Bloemfontein where they take on the Cheetahs on Friday night. It can only get better.


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.

Ref- B Whitehouse (Wales)

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