Lions tour of South Africa on brink of falling victim to coronavirus
British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa in danger of falling victim to coronavirus due to alarming surge in cases in the UK and host nation
- The initial plan was to wait until March to make a firm decision on the Lions tour
- But talks on touring South Africa are likely to hit a critical point later this month
- Postponing the tour by a year would create logistical difficulties in the calendar
- England are set to face Australia and Wales are due to play the Springboks then
Fears are growing that the Lions tour of South Africa will be unable to go ahead as planned this summer, due to the continuing disruption caused by the COVID pandemic.
Sportsmail has learned that contingency planning is being accelerated in light of the recent spike in case numbers and the emergence of a ‘mutant’ strain of the virus, both in the UK and in South Africa.
It is understood that the original target was to wait until March to make a firm decision on whether or not to proceed with the highly-anticipated British and Irish crusade to face the world champion Springboks, but talks are now likely to reach a critical point by the end of this month.
Fears are growing that the Lions tour of South Africa will be unable to go ahead this summer
The original plan was to wait until March to make a firm decision amid the Covid-19 pandemic
The outlook for the tour appears to have deteriorated alarmingly in the last fortnight, with the worsening of the COVID situation serving to ‘throw a spanner in the works’. Multiple sources have conceded that hopes of the Lions avoiding the fall-out from the pandemic are fading, with the rugby authorities in South Africa – where a vaccination programme is still months away – now ‘starting to fear the worst’.
It has previously been made clear that the whole venture cannot proceed without crowds and that position has not changed, despite the revenue generated by broadcast rights and a vast array of lucrative sponsorship deals. Officials in the host nation and within the home unions accept the vital need for the Lions’ ‘Red Army’ to be able to attend – with around 30,000 travelling fans expected.
Even a global health crisis has not diluted the appeal of this iconic sporting brand. Speaking in late October, Lions managing director Ben Calveley said: ‘The level of interest is approximately five times higher than what we’ve had on previous tours. We sold the level of packages that we sold for the Australia (2013) tour within one day of going on sale, and I think it took a week to get beyond the number of packages that were sold for the New Zealand (2017) tour.
‘Two of the Test matches sold out in record time – they were gone within an hour of going on sale – and the third Test, because it’s played in a great big 92,000-seat venue at Soccer City, took a little bit longer; about a couple of days. But all of them sold out and are very heavily over-subscribed. Those numbers suggest that not only is the interest there but people intend to travel in their droves.’
But the outlook for the tour against the world champions appears to have deteriorated
Sadly, the virus may now jeopardise the sport’s marquee event in 2021. The fall-back option will be to explore whether it is feasible to shift the tour back a year, to the same window in 2022. Such is the commercial clout of the Lions, there may be a collective will to make such a contingency work, although South Africa are supposed to be involved in a Test series against Wales during that window, while England are scheduled to visit Australia then and Ireland have a series in New Zealand.
Any attempt to postpone the tour by a year would create all manner of logistical difficulties in the crowded rugby calendar and push the next Lions crusade closer to the 2023 World Cup, which is not ideal. It would also leave Warren Gatland, the tourists’ head coach, with a complex employment issue to resolve, as he is meant to be back with the Waikato Chiefs in 2022.
However, the alternative to a one-year delay is cancellation; a doomsday scenario with grim financial implications – as well as the loss of a cherished sporting spectacle – which officials will be desperate to avoid at all costs.
The back-up option will be to explore whether it is feasible to shift the tour back a year
Lions head coach Warren Gatland’s reconnaissance mission next month is now in doubt
Gatland is due to visit South Africa on another reconnaissance mission next month, but that trip is in doubt due to renewed travel restrictions. The Kiwi, who masterminded a series victory over Australia eight years ago and a 1-1 draw with the All Blacks in 2017, was expected to name assistant coaches in the coming weeks, with indications that Andy Farrell and Steve Borthwick are in contention again, plus Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.
Wasps sensation Alfie Barbeary is due to have exploratory surgery on his ankle injury on Monday, with the club expecting their 20-year-old forward to be out of action for up to three months.
Leicester head coach Steve Borthwick will not be on duty at Welford Road for the visit of Bath on Sunday, as he and several Tigers players are isolating due to a COVID outbreak at the club.
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