Sunday 18 February 2018

Tracy primed for South African take-off

Hooker excited to get going on Leinster's mini-tour

James Tracy relaxing after yesterday’s press conference at Leinster Rugby headquarters in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
James Tracy relaxing after yesterday’s press conference at Leinster Rugby headquarters in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For many, the perceived glamour of the two new additions to the Guinness PRO14 has already worn off after four heavy defeats and yet the excitement in the Leinster squad as they prepare to depart for Johannesburg this evening is palpable.

While the management have been challenged by the logistics of getting the travelling party to and from South Africa for their games against the Southern Kings and Cheetahs, the squad members who are making the long journey can focus on the experience.

Twenty-eight players will board the plane for Paris tonight, although the final squad has yet to be confirmed as Leo Cullen gives fitness tests to a number of returning stars before making a call.

Along with Italian side Zebre, who make the journey in reverse, they are the league's guinea pigs; the first northern hemisphere teams to play an away game beneath the equator.

A small number of those travelling have been in these parts before; Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson-Park have both been on similar South African stints with their respective Super Rugby franchises while Jordi Murphy, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock and Sean Cronin were part of the Ireland team who were denied a series win in Port Elizabeth in 2016.

Coached

Stuart Lancaster coached England on a three-Test tour of the Rainbow Nation in 2012, while Girvan Dempsey played for Ireland in Bloemfontein in 2004 and Luke McGrath, Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier and Barry Daly were in the Ireland U-20 squad that downed the Baby Boks on home soil in 2012.

Yet for the remainder of the squad, this is a first and James Tracy was not about to let the disappointment of the Kings and Cheetahs' starts to the season get in the way of his enthusiasm for the journey ahead.

"I'm really looking forward to going over there and testing ourselves, taking in a bit of the culture and everything else there is to offer as well," the Kildare native said yesterday.

"Everyone is buzzing about it. A lot of people haven't even been there before. Going anywhere different is always exciting and getting to play rugby there as well is even better.

"We're all pretty pumped to get down there but we're under no illusion even though they haven't had too much luck so far that they will be tough to beat at home."

As soon as Tracy heard talk that the tournament was expanding into a new continent, he was up for the travel that would come with it.

"I was all for it," he said. "A few of my friends were like 'aw, that's a bit of a trek' but why wouldn't you want to do it? I would be open to anything.

"It's new challenges, new experiences. Everyone here is pumped. We didn't think it would happen this year but fair play to everyone for getting it over the line.

"There will be negative (talk) about everything that happens in the world.

"Someone will have something bad to say about it but from everyone I've spoken to in here we were all pumped for it. We were all really looking forward to seeing where the league goes and what is in the future."

Leinster make the journey having collected the maximum return from their opening two fixtures of the new season, something that gives them a little extra comfort as they take this step into the relative unknown.

The Kings are first up at Port Elizabeth's Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday and before the game the Irish players will have taken three flights to get to their destination.

Read more: Erasmus: League's new teams will deliver

They'll transfer down the south coast to Cape Town next week and base themselves there until Thursday when they make the trip up to the Highveld ahead of the clash with Bloemfontein's Cheetahs before returning home.

It is a hectic itinerary but Tracy believes the tour should help bring the squad together at an important time of the year in a way the domestic season doesn't.

"Any tour just galvanises a group, so I think that's a massive thing for us," the Ireland international said.

"We don't necessarily get to go away for that long together unless you're in Irish camp, and you're not together as a group, you're together with other people who, once you leave, you're not playing with them anymore until you're back again.

"I think just to bring us together as a group, so we'll all be socialising with each other as a group, off-training hours, as well as getting more time to do walk-throughs and stuff like that.

"If we went there at the end of the season it would still be different, but it can only be positive going over there as a group for two weeks and getting to be with each other for that amount of time, getting to play a few games against some big men."

Brian O'Driscoll last week warned that the South Africans would be a different beast on home soil and Tracy is anticipating a marked improvement from the Kings, who lost to Connacht on Saturday.

"From their perspective, I'm sure as a player group it has been tough to come together and be playing on the other side of the world in the space of a couple of weeks, it all happened very fast for them," he said.

"There's a bit of a period where you can understand if a few results didn't go their way but I know from watching video that they can play rugby.

"They have a lot of good players and it's going to be tough over there.

"They're going to grow and grow and anyone at home is a different animal."

Cape Town is a premium destination, but the Leinster squad are fully aware that they won't be allowed to enjoy themselves too much if they don't get the job done in Port Elizabeth first.

"You want to start strong because it would ruin the whole buzz of the tour at the start or if you finish badly it leaves a bad taste," Tracy confirmed.

"We're going over there with the attitude that we're going to win both games, no matter who we're playing. But on any tour you want to be winning.

"It's Ireland v South Africa on a smaller scale. Of course we're aware of that, but it won't change how we prep or anything like that, it just makes it exciting, it makes the occasion more special, just to be involved, and especially to be the first ones."

Blues on tour

Tonight: Leinster fly to South Africa

Tomorrow am: Arrive Johannesburg

Thursday am: Train in Johannesburg

Thursday pm: Fly to Port Elizabeth

Friday: Captain's Run at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth

Saturday: Southern Kings v Leinster, 1.15pm (Irish time)

Sunday Sept 17: Fly to Cape Town

Monday Sept 18: Train in Cape Town

Tuesday: Train in Cape Town

Wednesday: Down day in Cape Town

Thursday am: Captain's Run in Cape Town; Stuart Lancaster returns to Dublin to begin preparations for Leinster v Edinburgh

Thursday pm: Fly to Bloemfontein

Friday: Cheetahs v Leinster, 7.0pm (Irish time)

Saturday: Fly from Bloemfontein to Dublin via Johannesburg and Paris

Sunday October 1 am: Squad arrive back Dublin

Irish Independent

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