Saturday 18 August 2018

Leinster enjoy triumph amid local disinterest

Southern Kings 10 Leinster 31

Leinster’s Jack Conan drives over his try against the Southern Kings. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
Leinster’s Jack Conan drives over his try against the Southern Kings. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A limp and lacklustre occasion with an underwhelming encounter to match; this was exactly the kind of first impression the Guinness PRO14 could have done without in these parts.

The league's expansion into South Africa felt rushed when it was announced and this first game on Southern Hemisphere soil appeared to confirm that suspicion.

Adam Byrne on the rampage for Leinster. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
Adam Byrne on the rampage for Leinster. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile

Local interest is low, the teams are ill-prepared and the competition will suffer as a result.

Up in Bloemfontein, a bigger crowd turned out for the Cheetahs try-fest against Zebre thanks, in part, to a sponsor-led ticket giveaway. It was more encouraging and finally ended the South African winless streak, but there remains much road to travel.

Leinster won't care. They left Port Elizabeth for Cape Town yesterday with a relatively light injury list and maximum points from their first three games.

They didn't play particularly well at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, but they didn't need to in order to secure a five tries to one win.

Michael Bent, left, and James Ryan of Leinster. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
Michael Bent, left, and James Ryan of Leinster. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile

The big talking point was the crowd, or to be more precise the lack of one.

An official attendance of 3,011 looked exceedingly generous and the lack of local interest made for a strange afternoon in a cavernous stadium.

There were excuses to reach for: poor weather, a crowded schedule, the appalling Springbok performance on Saturday morning that would have turned most South Africans off rugby for a week, never mind an afternoon. However, it seemed like the arrival of something new should have brought more people through the turnstiles when tickets could be fetched for as little as €3.

Their addition to the league brought with it more revenue and the hope of increased competition, but also added travel headaches and logistical challenges.

Ed Byrne of Leinster under pressure. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
Ed Byrne of Leinster under pressure. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile

For Leinster to have travelled across the world to play in front of so few people seemed like a waste of time, although they appear to be enjoying the experience.

Patience

Patience is required; this empty stadium holds 46,000 and has a big rugby mad population to call on, but knowledge of Northern Hemisphere club rugby is not common. Leinster and Munster are not instantly recognisable brands here and there is huge work to be done in spreading the word.

Leinster coach Leo Cullen believes the idea is worth sticking with, despite the underwhelming start.

"You see the level of interest around the place, there's huge interest in the game. You walk by any TV and there's rugby on; there's huge appetite for it," he said.

Jack Conan of Leinster. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
Jack Conan of Leinster. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile

"It's an amazing market to be in, there's a huge appetite for rugby in this country and the travel is not a major deal. It's travelling across time zones that is a lot more challenging from a physical point of view.

"Luckily our players got through, came through the game as well.

"It's a positive step, it's a huge market. It makes unbelievable sense and hopefully it will grow further in future.

"These things are going to take time, it's been a difficult backdrop 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."

Cullen was happy with his team's second-half performance as they overcame their travel rust and responded to the home team's physicality with a 15-minute blitz after half-time that secured them the bonus point.

Whenever his side settled into their structure they looked far superior. In the first-half, a short spell of continuity led to Noel Reid's opening try, while after the break a spell of unrelenting pressure resulted in scores for Rory O'Loughlin, Jack Conan and Joey Carbery to secure a third bonus point in as many games.

Dave Kearney added a fifth, before Jacques Nel brought the locals who were there to their feet.

At full-time Leinster's players turned to the crowd after the traditional tunnel and there was no one there to applaud. It was surreal stuff.

"It didn't really affect us," Sean Cronin said of the poor turnout.

"A couple of times in the past you'd see that in the old PRO12 as well. It's been a great week, people have been really welcoming.

"Lads probably didn't notice it because we were going into the unknown of playing our first South African game and we got a bit of a wake-up call in terms of the physicality they brought.

"So, I'd say lads weren't focused on the crowd. We probably just settled into the second or third gear at the start and didn't really get going, lost a lot of ball in first phase.

"Once we upped it in the first 15 minutes of that second-half, we clicked and won the gainline basically and used our maul.

"It was pleasing that we had a bit of a chat at half-time and got the reaction.

"It was a tough game, probably sets us up well for next week. We started a bit slowly and it was a physical game, took us a while to build in to that. It was a small bit sloppy at the breakdown, but it was a good wake-up call for us coming up against what will probably be a stiffer challenge in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs."

That will be Leinster's focus this week. For the tournament organisers the task ahead is a far more challenging one.

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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