Leinster hoping their chance of URC glory doesn’t disappear into thin air in Pretoria

Leo Cullen confident his charges will deal with the challenging conditions at Loftus Versfeld as they face Jake White’s Bulls

Leinster in a team huddle during their Captain’s Run at Loftus Versfeld, South Africa. Photograph: Christiaan Kotze/Steve Haag Sports/Inpho
URC semi-final: Bulls v Leinster
Kick off time: 3pm. Venue: Lotus Versfeld. On TV: Live on RTÉ 2.

The last thing Leinster captain James Ryan will see before he walks out on to the Bulls ground Loftus Versfeld is a sign in the tunnel. It reads “Altitude. 1350m. It matters”.

The club are not afraid of reminding teams that when they come to Pretoria, their built-in advantage is always going to be the thin air.

Some of the Leinster team, which includes Garry Ringrose for the first time since January, have played at altitude before but some have not with hooker Dan Sheehan recently explaining that he had yet to play a rugby match in South Africa.

Whether the altitude does or does not have a profound effect on performance, the idea is planted. The sign is to ensure that if altitude wasn’t in players’ heads as they left the dressingroom, it would be by the time they stepped on to the pitch.


This week, however, coach Leo Cullen was sanguine about the challenges of travel and playing at over 4,000 feet above sea level as Leinster face into their sixth knock-out match of the season. With Ringrose back, the resumption of the Irish team partnership with Robbie Henshaw resumes, Jamie Osborne unlucky to miss out on a starting place.

“I think they will be okay,” said Cullen of the altitude. “I think it’s more of an issue when it’s hot as well. So, it’s a four o’clock kick-off, watching where the sun is, three quarters of the pitch is in shade, and the temperature has dropped pretty drastically.

“Certainly by half-time, it will be 10,12 degrees, so it’s not particularly warm. It’s warm during the day. Maybe if you were playing at midday it might be a bit more of an issue because the sun is the big factor. But we will see. I can’t see it being a major issue.”

In November Connacht travelled over and lost 53-27 during the southern hemisphere late spring. Coach Pete Wilkins said it did have an effect on his players, explaining “five or 10 minutes in they feel as if they’ve played 40 or 50 minutes”. However the players then got a second wind which saw them through to half-time.

Garry Ringrose: returns to the Leinster starting team for the first time since January. Photograph: Christiaan Kotze/ Steve Haag Sports/Inpho

Ringrose is the only change from last time out and his return means Henshaw shuffles into 12. He had been playing at 13 with Osborne, but the natural order restores the original alignment. Ringrose brings experience and physicality to the position with Cullen seeing no issue with the length of his lay-off.

“He’ll bring a lot of intent because he is passionate about the team and team-mates that he has so much time for, and he’s such an integral part of the group,” said Cullen.

“He’s been working away with Jacques [Nienaber] and Seánie [O’Brien] in terms of some of his contact work and hopefully he goes well and gives a good account of himself.

“Robbie and Garry they have played so much together, and Robbie has a had a good relationship with Jamie hasn’t he. We are a bit spoiled for choice, fortunate there. Jamie is going to feature and hopefully he will have a big role to play towards the end of the game.”

The Bulls have made three changes to the team that beat Benetton last week and Springbok flanker Marco van Staden comes in. In contrast, the Bulls must do without World Cup winner Kurt-Lee Arendse, who had emergency surgery this week for a fractured cheekbone. Sergeal Petersen comes in on the right wing with Devon Williams another change on the left wing.

World Cup winner Willie le Roux starts for the Bulls at fullback, however his Springbok team-mate and World Cup winner in France last year, Canan Moodie, remains on the injured list.

This week Bulls coach Jake White has been exhorting fans to turn out and support his side, fill the 52,000 capacity stadium and make their home advantage count for something. Tickets to see the most successful club side in South Africa play Leinster can be got for as little as R50 or €2.54, about the price of a pint in South African pubs.

Leo Cullen during Leinster Rugby Captain’s Run at Loftus Versfeld, South Africa. Photograph: Christiaan Kotze/Steve Haag Sports/Inpho

“This is when we get to go away and spend the week together, play in an iconic venue against a team that knows us well. They’re a big squad, loads of Springbok players, a World Cup-winning coach, all the rest of it,” said Cullen.

“So, it has a bit of everything and yes, you want to see our guys stand up and show what they’re made of and you want to see character in the best sense.”

If Munster win their match against Glasgow, the final regardless of who wins in Loftus Versfeld will take place in Thomond Park. If Leinster beat the Bulls and Glasgow beat Munster, the URC have listed Croke Park as the nominated venue for the final between Leinster and Glasgow as Leinster finished higher on the league table before the knock-out phase of the competition.

BULLS: Willie le Roux; Sergeal Petersen, David Kriel, Harold Vorster, Devon Williams; Johan Goosen, Embrose Papier; Gerhard Steenekamp, Johan Grobbelaar, Wilco Louw; Ruan Vermaak, Ruan Nortje (capt); Marco Van Staden, Elrigh Louw, Cameron Hanekom

Replacements: Akker van der Merwe, Simphiwe Matanzima, Francois Klopper, Reinhardt Ludwig, Nizaam Carr, Keagan Johannes, Chris Smith, Cornel Smit.

LEINSTER: Jimmy O’Brien; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Joe McCarthy, James Ryan (capt); Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Michael Ala’alatoa, Ross Molony, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath, Ciarán Frawley, Jamie Osborne.

Referee: Sam Grove-White (Sco).

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times