Jamison Gibson-Park had warned that Leinster’s trip to South Africa would make for a tricky assignment.
That was long before yesterday’s farce on the team’s arrival in Johannesburg via Paris and one which ended with the Kiwi scrum-half, as well as his compatriot and the province’s captain Isa Nacewa, refused entry due to visa issues and returning to Ireland.
The scrum-half spent four seasons in Super Rugby, the first three with the Blues and the last an abridged one with the Hurricanes, before relocating to Ireland two summers ago. Long-haul trips to the Rainbow nation were nothing new to him.
In all, the Blues and Hurricanes had played eight times in South Africa whilst Gibson-Park was registered with them and the only win recorded in all that time was a 50-17 drubbing of the Lions by the ‘Canes.
All the talk before he left Dublin as part of a 40-strong party on Tuesday had been about how the Cheetahs and Southern Kings would amount to a much different proposition on home soil to the ones tanked in Europe during the opening weeks of the season.
“They are very passionate about their rugby,” he said. “It is an awesome place to play.”
But there was a realisation, too, on the part of Leinster’s staff that a sketchy schedule stitched together at such short notice after the competition’s South African expansion would likely lead to logistical glitches.
Little did they know.
It was late afternoon yesterday when news dropped that Gibson-Park and Nacewa, both New Zealand citizens, had been prevented from entering South Africa after arriving at OR Tambo International Airport.
South Africa and New Zealand had enjoyed a mutual visa-free travel arrangement for 20 years, but the latter’s move to end it last November prompted a tit-for-tat move in response and that came into effect in January.
Nacewa and Gibson-Park aren’t the first Kiwis to be discommoded by it.
Crusaders fans hoping to attend the Super Rugby final against the Lions in Johannesburg last month found a backlog in applications at the South African High Commission in Hamilton stretching back over two weeks and were unable to travel.
Leinster had more time and resources to get their papers in order.
Though the inclusion of the South African franchises has undoubtedly been rushed, the season’s Guinness PRO14 fixtures were published over five weeks ago and the clubs had been given a heads-up on the long-haul trips even before that.
New Zealanders living anywhere other than at home or Australia are obliged to submit their visa applications to the nearest South African Embassy which, in Ireland, is in Dublin’s Earlsfort Terrace. That’s a 10-minute drive away from Leinster’s UCD base.
It’s a mortifying cock-up for the province and it doesn’t reflect well on the Guinness PRO14 as an organisation at a time when opinion is still divided as to the merits or otherwise of the expansion and the alacrity with which it happened.
Head coach Leo Cullen had been asked specifically about the range of logistical issues involved with this trip prior to the game against Cardiff Blues at the RDS last week and he had lauded the work done by the province’s backroom staff.
“All the travel, more often than not, has been seamless for the players and for the squad,” Cullen had said at the time.
Leinster confirmed last night that the two players had “not been granted a visa at this point in time” and would return to Dublin as soon as possible. The portents hadn’t been good. Chiefs player Alex Nankivell had been turned away in July after being denied entry.
His problem was a mere “clerical error”.
The 20-year old centre’s visa had been dated to expire in June as opposed to August. Then head coach Dave Rennie remarked that “there was absolutely no flexibility from the South African border” who directed him back to his port of origin, which was Sydney in his case.
Leinster are flying scrum-half Nick McCarthy in to replace Gibson-Park. There was no mention of a deputy for Nacewa.
It is an embarrassing episode for the province and it weakens them from the off as they face into their historic 12-day tour.
The three-time European champions are due to play the Southern Kings at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Saturday afternoon before facing the Cheetahs at the Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein six days later.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved