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FEATURE Leinster 'sitting on a sharp stick' for running of the Bulls

Leinster 'sitting on a sharp stick' for running of the Bulls
1 month ago

It was hard to miss the plea from Jake White to the Pretorian Guard, imploring them to mobilise for the arrival of Leinster for Saturday’s URC semi-final. Not just hard to miss but equally hard to fathom if you’re watching from, say, the comfort of Leinster’s heartland in leafy south Dublin.

For the first time in the albeit short history of the URC Ireland’s most successful province are locked and loaded going to South Africa, with over 30 players on board to cover all eventualities. The last time there were this many frontline Ireland Test players in that part of the world was with the Lions in 2021. Fans had no choice but to skip that one.

As part of his promotional push White alluded to the fact that a whole clatter of this Leinster squad will be back in town with Ireland next month, to pick up the thread from the World Cup. So should the locals not be already queuing halfway down Pretoria’s Kirkness Street to get their hands on tickets?

Kurt-Lee Arendse
Bulls are a formidable proposition in Pretoria but there are often plenty of empty seats at Loftus Versfeld (Photo Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

They would be, if forking out for games was merely an incidental expense. What folks in Leinster’s world don’t appreciate perhaps is that while rugby is the chosen form of cultural expression for many South Africans it’s also a strain on the wallet to watch it up close on a regular basis. Bringing the game to the masses in that country doesn’t result in the masses bringing a wedge of cash in return. The ticket price range for Saturday will be R50-R500 – that’s a top end of just €25. Still, it’s a struggle because not many can make that financial commitment whenever it suits.

Loftus Versfeld is one of the storied grounds in world rugby. If White hits the spot and it’s stuffed to the gills then the stadium crew might be almost tempted to turn off the woeful soundtrack that has become integral to the matchday experience in that part of the world, and let the guts of 52,000 spectators make their own noise. For this showdown, however, the Bulls marketing team are hoping for maybe 30,000 to make their presence felt. There won’t be an echo around the ground but neither will it be heaving. So at every pause in play the MC will be barging in. It’s like a wedding where the father of the bride keeps getting back to his feet, unsteadily, for another verse: “I saw the simmering light as I passed by her window…”

It’s good for the competition that Leinster are now sitting on a sharp stick.  We need to see them under pressure, at altitude, having to produce their best game to survive the alien environment as well as the Bulls

We’ve been warned to brace ourselves for a singalong to Kurt Darren’s Kaptein (Span die Seile) getting the locals into a lather. You’re unfamiliar with Kurt (Kurt Johan van Heerden to give him his full name)? He’s a music legend in that land. Brace yourselves. Think Wagon Wheel but in Afrikaans.

The rugby will be of a higher order though. The Bulls have some things to fix after the quarter-final against Benetton, and if you were involved in running the URC you’d pray that they do. At their best they play a sometimes irresistible mix of biff with subtle touches, though they lack the quality through the squad to make them a consistently dominant force. Taking Canan Moodie and Kurt Lee Arendse out of the picture exposes that further.

Still, it’s good for the competition that Leinster are now sitting on a sharp stick. We need to see them under pressure, at altitude, having to produce their best game to survive the alien environment as well as the Bulls – and then hop on a plane home before maybe going into the final the following weekend, already conceding ground in the rest and recovery process to either Munster or Glasgow.

Garry Ringrose
Garry Ringrose could make his Leinster comeback on Saturday but hasn’t played since January (Photo Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

For Leinster that state of affairs would be unusual, if not unique. So if they successfully come out the far side of the next two Saturdays it will be celebrated like it’s the only show in town. Lord knows, they need a knees up.

Andy Farrell would be the first to identify with putting the comfort blanket in the hot press and adjusting to the temperature in the real world. Two summers ago the Ireland head coach weighed his players down with the responsibility of going to New Zealand on a five game tour: three official Tests plus two unofficial ones, with the Maori. The challenge was not to get back in one piece, rather it was about not being so badly broken they couldn’t glue the bits back together again, only stronger.  The experience from that adventure was banked to sustain the next ‘tour’ – the World Cup, in France.

The 2022 trip succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. Farrell will head to South Africa in July without two, and possibly three, of the backs who made the New Zealand tour so successful: Johnny Sexton is retired, Hugo Keenan is on sevens duty and while Garry Ringrose has travelled with Leinster this week, and likely to start, it’s unclear if he will be back there for Ireland’s Call.

If Leinster are to consider a glass of bubbles on the long haul home from South Africa then Jimmy O’Brien may well be the man to pop the cork.

Ringrose hasn’t featured for Leinster since January; his last game of any description was coming off the bench for Ireland in the Six Nations, against Scotland, in March. Having recovered to the point where he was in the team to face Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-final last month he got another shoulder bang in training during that week and had to be withdrawn. He has a lot of scar tissue on those joints at this point. You’d wonder about the wisdom of factoring him into Ireland’s plans, whatever about Leinster’s.

So the return to fitness of Jimmy O’Brien has given Farrell welcome news – the coach really needs him to stay that way ahead of July’s business. Cullen and Nienaber are thinking shorter term. If they are to consider a glass of bubbles on the long haul home from South Africa then O’Brien may well be the man to pop the cork.

Jimmy O'Brien and Jamison Gibson-Park
O’Brien’s return to fitness and form in recent weeks has been a boon for Leinster (Photo Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

As a schoolboy in Newbridge College he was a skinny kid who could shift quickly through the gears, leaving other lads for dead. That schools team were short on heft, so anything that looked like a half gap represented a golden opportunity. Subsequently with Leinster O’Brien was moved to the utility room in the building. His skill, pace and footballing ability were always huge positives, but in a collision sport his modest physique was an issue when it came to picking the starting side.

Your last memory of O’Brien in green would be his impressive run off the bench against New Zealand in the World Cup quarter-final. He arrived into the game when Ireland were low on juice; immediately he put some high octane stuff in the tank. Injury has parked him since before Christmas however, and again it was a spring off the bench that bounced him back into service – against Saints in the Champions Cup semi-final. Perfect timing.

O’Brien has been more than simply safe and sound: there is something about his demeanour that suggests, at 27, he’s arrived in the lounge reserved for peak performers.

Since then O’Brien has been more than simply safe and sound: there is something about his demeanour that suggests, at 27, he’s arrived in the lounge reserved for peak performers. The two tries against Connacht a couple of weeks ago were a reminder of how devastating he can be from full back. Well, from anywhere given a bit of space, but with Keenan out of the equation O’Brien is the perfect fit.

RG Snyman
Leinster’s Irish rivals Munster are the only team to have beaten the Bulls at Loftus this season (Photo Shaun Roy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

He is a different beast to Damian Willemse, but Loftus will suit him. The theme for the away team will be to use the scattering of Leinster fans – likely expats – as evidence they are virtually all alone in hostile territory, and have to deliver. One Irish tour company was half way through organising a supporters trip but binned it because of lack of interest. You wouldn’t get much change out of €2,000 for a three day trek. The international option in the background hasn’t helped. For example another operator, Killester Travel in Dublin, is sending a couple of hundred supporters for the Test series next month, with all the usual activities as part of the package.

By the time those holiday-makers set off, the Leinster contingent in the party will either be reflecting on a season salvaged from the wreckage of Tottenham, and a third straight European final loss, or one where they are short of silverware of any description over the same timeframe. In other words, a famine. Hard to put a price on getting that sum right. Cross your fingers that there will be a late surge of support for what could be a classic confrontation.

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Comments

1 Comment
J
J P 38 days ago

“What folks in Leinster’s world don’t appreciate perhaps is that while rugby is the chosen form of cultural expression for many South Africans it’s also a strain on the wallet to watch it up close on a regular basis”

Leinster supporters don't appreciate how expensive rugby is after forking out for a mix of:

  • champions Cup round of 16, quarter finals, semi final and final (plus accommodation);
  • next year's season tickets;
  • URC knockouts
Over the last few months?

What absolute garbage.

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