Leinster’s early South African voyage a spanner in works for Leo Cullen

The complications involved in travelling to South Africa so early in the upcoming PRO14 season are already evident for Leinster coach Leo Cullen.

A “spanner in the works” was how the Leinster head coach described the two-week trip as he scrambles to prepare for something that wasn’t even mapped on the radar when the last season ended.

The province is down to play away to both the Southern Kings and Cheetahs within six days in September and the restrictions on the number of those travelling imposed by the tournament organisers has already compromised Cullen’s plans for his British and Irish Lions.

There had been internal discussions about reintegrating at least some of their five Lions — Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Sean O’Brien and Jack McGrath all toured New Zealand this summer — for the fourth week but the African trip has put paid to that.

“Some of them could potentially have been brought back for round four,” Cullen explained yesterday at the Aviva Stadium. “But, the fact we are in South Africa means we are not going to fly those guys out for that. It just presents all these challenges.”

Speaking at the tournament launch, the Leinster head coach explained that teams travelling south will be permitted a defined number of players for the mini-tour.

There will be no flying players in and out due to injury, or for any other reason, and the initial figures being bandied about are for an allowance of 28 players and between eight and 12 support staff per team per trip.

Leinster, to give some context here, have a senior squad of 45.

“It’s huge, there’s a huge amount of planning has to go into it, the logistics,” said Cullen. “You’d like to bring as significant a number as you can to be training out there. It’s definitely a spanner in the works, especially as the first team to be out there.

“Us along with Zebre at the same time. It’s definitely difficult in terms of planning because it’s late as well. We still haven’t got full confirmation of the trip yet. The dialogue back and forth of what we are allowed to do and what we’re not allowed to do is still going on.”

Jamie Heaslip could be available for the trip. Cullen described the back row as “touch and go” for next week’s season opener away to the Dragons but getting close to full fitness after his lower back injury. Jordi Murphy, Rob Kearney and Dave Kearney all came through their re-introductions last week in the friendly with Gloucester.

They’ll not be short talent for their long jaunt to Africa.

Leinster will fly out on the Tuesday prior to the Southern Kings game, arrive on the Wednesday and play the Saturday. The Cheetahs game follows the Friday after and they then face Edinburgh at the RDS just seven days later.

The logistics involved are fascinating.

Almost 14,000 kilometres will separate the point of departure in Dublin and their destination. Some will travel out via London, others through Paris, and it remains to be seen if every player can be accommodated in a business class seat.

“I’ve been working as a travel agent,” Cullen joked. A training base has yet to be nailed down with Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Stellenbosch all mentioned as candidates so far but the biggest headache of all may be actually getting everybody home.

Flights between Europe and South Africa aren’t exactly short of passengers at the best of times and Leinster are facing a situation where they will not be able to fly all of their players out the day after the Cheetahs game.

Those down for duty against Edinburgh will be afforded priority.

And added to all that is the altitude issue in Bloemfontein.

Though not the most challenging of venues in that regard, it is something that can have an effect on visiting teams and Leinster will lean on S&C man Charlie Higgins, who has worked with Western Force in the past, there.

So much to consider, so little time.

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