Wednesday 18 September 2019

Munster on song in Afrikaans adventure

South African trip sparks memories of tours consigned to the past

Munster’s CJ Stander is tackled by Tienie Burger of the Southern Kings. Photo: Luke Walker/Sportsfile
Munster’s CJ Stander is tackled by Tienie Burger of the Southern Kings. Photo: Luke Walker/Sportsfile

John Fallon

Any lingering doubt the Munster players had that they were breaking new territory at Outeniqua Park in George, South Africa, on Saturday evening was dispelled in the dressing room beforehand when the sound of men singing filtered through the walls of the old stadium.

The singing, all in Afrikaans, was not coming from the 6,000 supporters engrossed in a curtain-raiser between two local sides, but rather from across the corridor as the Southern Kings got ready for battle.

Above them, in the concrete stand and packed around the ground, the crowd went wild as hit after hit was delivered as Progress and Evergreens battled it out in a game that clearly meant more to the locals the clash between the Southern Kings and Munster.

A few Guinness hoardings around the pitch was all that indicated there was PRO14 action taking place in George for the first time, but the brewery with the most branding in the stadium was Castle Lager and it was their product which the locals were lashing back with gusto.

By the time Progress and Evergreens finished knocking lumps out of each other, about half the crowd hit for the exits, with an equal portion thrilled with the result and as many more livid at losing to their rivals.

The Kings players' singing in the dressing room was one surreal aspect; The Fields of Athenry getting a good airing into the South African evening was another as over 200 Munster supporters made their presence felt in the 39-22 victory for the visitors.

They have travelled in a couple of groups and also individual bookings. It's an attractive trip, going to CJ Stander's hometown and then on to Cape Town for a few days, before heading for Bloemfontein for next Friday night's clash with the Cheetahs and then home to finish preparations for the Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92 in Bordeaux.

Flights and accommodation are not cheap, but neither are they expensive relative to other long-haul trips, and with petrol selling at 90 cent a litre, pints of beer for around €2.50, and a good meal for two with wine for about €50, it's not too hard on the wallet.

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The South African teams look set to stay in the PRO14 and these double match trips will appeal to supporters, but they are hard work for players coming from Europe.

Going to Europe is much easier for the South African sides compared to Super Rugby trips to New Zealand, Japan, Australia and Argentina, but even with the best logistics in the world it can be tough going for players coming here from Ireland and the other PRO14 countries.

All players coming from Europe travel business class - the coaches and other members of the backroom team don't - which results in most sides having to split into two groups as there wouldn't be enough premium places on the aircrafts.

Munster came in two groups last Monday via Dubai, arriving hours apart on Tuesday. They trained on Wednesday, then had a bus journey to George which took six or seven hours allowing for stops.

They made the return journey yesterday and will have four full days in Cape Town to train and recharge the batteries.

As many of the players have remarked, it's the sort of tour that they heard their fathers talking about when they were growing up but which have all but disappeared in the professional era.

There isn't, of course, the social side which marked those old club tours, but any hype that might be building about the Champions Cup semi-final in Bordeaux is well outside of earshot.

With WiFi dodgy away from the hotels - it's not great inside some of them, working at the stadium on Saturday night was fraught with peril - and exorbitant roaming charges, the usual traffic online is being skipped.

The heat which greeted the squad in Cape Town was less evident in George for the game, but it will be warm this week as they prepare for the Cheetahs and the demands of playing them on the Highveld will also be a challenge.

However, all that could be crucial preparation to Munster on Sunday week when, probably, Bordeaux will be hot for the showdown with Racing 92.

Right now, with Afrikaans music still ringing in their ears, that game must seem like a long way off, but this is new ground for Munster and how they handle things over the next fortnight will decide their season.

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