Leinster are left short-handed and red-faced by visa error
On Monday, Jamison Gibson-Park was one of two Leinster players put forward for media duty and the Kiwi scrum-half was decidedly upbeat about the prospect of heading back to South Africa.
He made it to OR Tambo Airport and no further as a change in visa regulations meant he and fellow New Zealander Isa Nacewa were denied entry to the country and were last night winging their way back to Europe, leaving the province short-handed and a little red faced.
Along with Zebre, the Irish province are braving the new frontier of the Guinness PRO14 and have been handed the rather large and expensive logistical challenge of transporting 28 players and a curtailed support staff to the lower tip of Africa. Nacewa and Gibson-Park have come and gone to South Africa frequently as part of Super Rugby squads, while the New Zealanders in the Irish set-up last summer were waved through immigration but that changed in January and the alteration to the regulations has caught PRO14 and Leinster by surprise.
The province have high standards on and off the pitch and will be kicking themselves over the unfortunate administrative error.
They are already without the core of their senior team. Their Lions are still working their way back to fitness, Jamie Heaslip is not yet recovered from his back injury and Rob Kearney and Dan Leavy were unable to travel after picking up injuries in Friday’s win over Cardiff Blues.
Their absence was compounded by the understandable decision that expectant fathers Devin Toner and Scott Fardy remain behind.
It means Leo Cullen was dealing with a weakened hand as he brought his team to the southern hemisphere, but he can still call on a squad that is high on quality even if the experience is lacking in certain areas.
Nacewa’s absence exposes a lack of caps in the back division; Luke McGrath will pick up some of the slack but much will fall on the shoulders of the recently-returned Noel Reid who is expected to fill the No 12 jersey in the captain’s absence in Port Elizabeth.
There is plenty of experience in the outside channels where Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney have made the trip, while up front Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Michael Bent have all been around enough blocks to lead from the front.
The absence of first-choice second-rows Fardy and Toner opens up an opportunity for a new combination in the engine room, although Rhys Ruddock may be redeployed to lock in an attempt to get as much experience into the pack as possible.
James Ryan has travelled along with Mick Kearney and Ross Molony, but when Cullen has Jordi Murphy, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan to call on in the back-row, he might fancy picking Ireland’s summer tour skipper in the row.
Cullen has gone on record with his frustration at the lack of preparation time for this tour, but the benefit for the former captain is seeing how his management team and squad cope in adversity. They may be callow in certain areas, but they have bundles of talent and are far more experienced than the Kings side they’ll face on Saturday.
The administrative oversight was not a great start to their tour, but a win at the weekend would quickly consign it to the quirky afterthought section of their travel diary.
Certainly, the players are up for the challenge and judging from the mood around the team hotel last night, they are not wallowing in self-pity at losing two key players.
“There’s a lot of new challenges involved which will test the group and it will be more of a challenge to the guys who have never done it before, never played over here or been on that tour environment,” Ruddock said. “It’s exciting as well, the last two results are ones we’d be pleased with but it’s just about building now.”