South Africa declared its intention Tuesday to host the British and Irish Lions rugby tour as scheduled this year, although it’s uncertain if fans will be allowed to attend games because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Contingency plans had been drawn up, which included bringing the matches to Britain and Ireland — where there appeared to be a more feasible chance that fans would be allowed into stadiums — or postponing the tour until 2022 or 2025.
But the two teams said they were “aligned” on delivering the tour “in the scheduled playing window.”
It was a surprise announcement as it had been presumed that the tour would move to another country or be delayed.
“I can confirm that the board’s intended position is for the tour to go ahead as scheduled in South Africa in 2021,” said Jason Leonard, chairman of the British and Irish Lions.
The six-week tour is scheduled to start July 3. The Lions are set to play three tests against the world champion Springboks but also five games against South African domestic and development teams, which would see them travel to six different cities.
That original tour schedule was “subject to review,” SA Rugby president Mark Alexander said. It might be trimmed to mitigate the virus risks.
South Africa has had more than 1.5 million reported cases of COVID-19 and more than 50,000 deaths. Its cases have been driven since late last year by a variant that experts says is more contagious.
Also, South Africa’s vaccination program is progressing much slower than planned. South Africa has vaccinated just 182,000 people out of a population of 60 million. Vaccines haven’t yet been rolled out to the general public because the country’s more than 1 million health workers have to be vaccinated first.
Health experts expect South Africa to be hit by a third wave of virus infections in late May or early June.
“We acknowledge that there is a significant amount of work still to be undertaken to deliver a robust COVID-19 countermeasure plan to ensure a successful, safe and uninterrupted tour,” Leonard said. “SA Rugby will have our full support to help implement this plan.”
SA Rugby’s Alexander said “we appreciate the Lions’ faith and share their desire to see a safe and successful tour.”
“We have been in regular contact with our government to make that a reality against the backdrop of the pandemic and its predicted progression over the coming months,” he added.
But Alexander didn’t commit to the question of fans at games, a key part of the spirit of Lions tours and a significant money-spinner for host countries who would normally welcome tens of thousands of big-spending British and Irish tourists. SA Rugby was lobbying the South African government to allow stadiums to be at least 50% full, South African newspaper Rapport reported on Sunday.
“There are serious financial implications for SA Rugby should the event take place without any supporters in attendance, and we cannot ignore that in our considerations,” Alexander said Tuesday. “But we are determined that the eventual outcome will deliver the best occasion and experience for players, supporters and our commercial partners.”
Bill Sweeney, chief executive of England’s Rugby Football Union, effectively ruled out the option of staging matches in Britain and Ireland, which had been considered an option because of a far more advanced vaccination program.
“We’re just running out of runway,” Sweeney said, adding that an option of Australia hosting also “has gone away.”
“If you look at the original agreement, it says South Africa have an obligation to host the tour in South Africa and the Lions have an obligation to turn up and play,” said Sweeney, speaking before the joint announcement by the teams. “No one has ever said that can’t be fulfilled. What we’re now saying is can we have absolute clarity on that, can you still host the Lions tour? We believe they’re (South Africa) saying they can.”
Sweeney said a Lions tour going ahead without fans would be “quite controversial,” adding: “It’s not in the spirit of the Lions and we’re very conscious of that.”
However, no sports in South Africa have allowed fans into stadiums since the pandemic hit and authorities have given no indications publicly that it will change soon.
The Springboks haven’t played a game since winning the World Cup in Japan in November 2019.
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