Rugby chiefs stick to plans for Lions to tour South Africa

London (AFP) –


South Africa rugby chiefs said on Tuesday they still planned to host the British and Irish Lions this year despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Covid-19 crisis put a major question mark over the July-August tour, which includes three Tests between the world champion Springboks and the combined side.

But a joint statement from the Lions and South Africa Rugby said the two parties were "aligned on delivering the Castle Lager Lions Series in South Africa in the scheduled playing window".

The spread of Covid-19 and issues over mass vaccination in South Africa had led to suggestions the tour might take place in Britain and Ireland instead, with Australian rugby chiefs also offering to stage the series.

But Lions chairman Jason Leonard said: "After reviewing information relating to the various contingency scenarios being considered, I can confirm that the (Lions) board's intended position is for the tour to go ahead as scheduled in South Africa in 2021."

The former England prop added: "We acknowledge that there is a significant amount of work still to be undertaken to deliver a robust Covid-19 counter-measure plan to ensure a successful, safe and uninterrupted tour.

"SA Rugby will have our full support to help implement this plan."

It is not yet known, however, if travelling Lions fans, a key component of the vibrant atmosphere at matches and a major source of revenue for the host nation, will be allowed to attend games.

SA Rugby president Mark Alexander thanked the Lions, saying: "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.

"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."

- 'Best experience' -

The Lions are scheduled to play a warm-up match against Japan in Edinburgh on June 26.

An eight-game tour then features three Tests, with internationals in Johannesburg on July 24 and August 7 either side of a July 31 clash in Cape Town.

Alexander, however, said the dates could yet be changed.

"We are determined that the eventual outcome will deliver the best occasion and experience for players, supporters and our commercial partners," he added.

English Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney, one of England's representatives on the Lions' board, said earlier Tuesday that officials were "running out of road" in terms of staging the series in Britain and Ireland.

Sweeney said while the Lions had discussed delaying the tour until next year, that created problems of its own given that the team's constituent countries had already scheduled southern hemisphere tours for 2022.

He said bio-security was now the major issue, pointing to how the England cricket team had recently cut short a tour of South Africa because of coronavirus concerns.

But he said the Lions countries' experience of playing the Six Nations behind closed doors due to Covid-19 could help their hosts.

"We just have to work with South Africa and make sure they have got the right environments there," he said.

"We have to make sure the players' health and welfare is absolutely of a level we can accept."