herald

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Tumbleweed tour rolls on

Nacewa and Gibson-Park to start at Cheetahs

Rhys Ruddock drives forward for Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 match against Southern Kings at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Pic: Sportsfile
Rhys Ruddock drives forward for Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 match against Southern Kings at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Pic: Sportsfile

All that was missing from Leinster's predictable victory over the Southern Kings was the sight of tumbleweed rolling down the length of the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

It may as well have been played behind closed doors for all of the crowd it attracted and excitement it generated.

The newly established PRO14 has been expanded in great haste.

The attraction for the South African public could be critical to further plans of reaching out to the United States in a time of what could kindly be described as growing pains.

While the official attendance was listed as 3,011, the general consensus was that it was doubtful whether it exceeded 500.

Silence

It was outside of Leinster's control and the players had to blot out everything else, including the near silence.

This didn't come naturally or quickly as they struggled to deal with the Kings in the first-half.

"Yeah, I suppose sometimes, when there is a big, huge stadium and not a huge amount of people, you just need to bring your own energy," said captain Rhys Ruddock.

"I thought the energy they brought in the first-half was greater than ours and that left us second best a lot of the time."

It is informative to note how Leinster's first foray into the inaugural Celtic League drew 4,500 spectators to Donnybrook in August of 2001.

That was entirely different as the Dublin public was crying out for something to support six years after the advent of professionalism.

The Southern Kings could not attract enough top-end players or local-based loyalty from the region around Port Elizabeth to maintain their interest in Super Rugby.

This is their 'last chance saloon' for genuine professional rugby and, on Saturday, the bar was empty.

"It must be an unbelievably tough challenge for them," sympathised Leinster coach Leo Cullen.

"They are getting a squad together a couple of weeks before the tournament starts without any pre-season, effectively.

"These things take time. It has been a difficult backdrop for the Kings.

"Everything is set-up here - a fantastic stadium - and as the performances improve I'm sure there will be better crowds."

Despite all this, the impact of the match against The Cheetahs in Bloemfontein next Friday was always going to be the better barometer for the future of the PRO14.

It hadn't been a good week for Leinster Rugby, in terms of their failure to gain entry into South Africa for Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson-Park, or for the PRO14.

At least, the club captain and the scrum-half returned to meet the rest of the fold in Cape Town yesterday.

It would come as a shock were both men not to start against The Cheetahs on Friday night.

Cullen set aside time to deride Leinster for their inaccuracy and lack of control in the first-half on Saturday.

Their work at the ruck was sloppy at best, where hooker Michael Willemse and flanker Khaya Majola caused them all sorts of bother.

Worse again, they coughed up 16 turnovers and missed 18 tackles in the first 40, rising to 31 by the final whistle.

Even so, the five tries stitched into the wide margin of victory (31-10) ensured Leinster left round three as the only club from either Conference to retain maximum points to lead Ulster by two in section B.

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