Protecting mental health will be key for Gatland's Lions in South Africa

London (AFP) –


Warren Gatland says looking after the mental health of his British and Irish Lions players could be his toughest challenge as they prepare for up to 10 weeks in a coronavirus bubble.

Head coach Gatland announced his 37-man tour party for the South Africa tour on Thursday, picking veteran Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones as captain.

Squad members -- including those with no remaining English Premiership commitments -- will meet for a training camp in Jersey in mid-June and return from South Africa on August 9.

"The big challenge for us is being in the bubble in South Africa and potentially having to quarantine when we come back," said Gatland.

"If you add in the two-week camp before we go it could be up to 10 weeks away and in a bubble.

"The rugby side takes care of itself so it's important we get the other stuff right and think about the players' wellbeing and mental health.

"The rugby's going to be the easy part. We need to get the other stuff right and then we've got a chance of performing on the field."

The tourists hope to publish their revised schedule for South Africa next week with the eight fixtures culminating in a three-Test series against the world champion Springboks now taking place in Johannesburg and Cape Town only, reducing travel during the pandemic.

Former Wales coach Gatland admitted the tour would provide unique challenges. South Africa is Africa's worst-affected country with more than 1.5 million infections and over 54,000 deaths.

On their return the players are likely to have to quarantine in isolation at a government-approved hotel, with South Africa on Britain's red list of countries.

"The safety of the players is paramount and the mental health of the players comes first," said Gatland. "Being in that bubble, being away from family, it will be about making sure we stay connected with our families.

"We'll have to keep the players entertained, put things on for them -- competitions, pool, darts, cards, casino nights, sing-songs, quizzes. We've got to be creative in that area.

"We'll probably continue with the singing and choir practice that we've done in the past. That was successful for us. Those kinds of things are something that we need to get right."