Gatland's Lions set for record-breaking South Africa tour

London (AFP) –


Warren Gatland's third turn as British & Irish Lions coach will likely see a new world record for a rugby Test attendance in the professional era after the schedule was released for the 2021 tour of South Africa on Wednesday.

Soccer City in Soweto, Johannesburg, which staged the 2010 football World Cup final, will host the first of the three Test series with the newly-crowned world champions on July 24 with an approximate capacity of 88,000.

A sell-out crowd would be higher than the 84,188 who witnessed the series decider against the Wallabies in 2001.

Gatland, though, will have a sense of deja vu with regard to the 2017 tour of the then-world champions New Zealand -- which ended tied at one apiece -- as the English Premiership final will take place just a week before their first match with the Stormers.

However, the 56-year-old New Zealander -- who ended his highly successful 12-year tenure as Wales coach after they finished fourth at the World Cup -- said he was content with the schedule.

"We are very comfortable that three of the games, two of which are Test matches, will be played at altitude," said Gatland in a statement issued by the Lions.

"Our schedule falls in a way to allow us to start at sea level before building up and acclimatising to the unique environment that playing at altitude presents."

As previously confirmed, the tour has been shortened from 10 games to eight, with the Lions playing Super Rugby sides Stormers, Sharks and Bulls before the Test series.

"I am absolutely thrilled," said Gatland.

"Ensuring the team are absolutely primed for the Test matches is a critical element of any Lions Tour, and I am confident the quality of opposition we will face in the opening weeks will get us ready to take on the Springboks."

Gatland -- who is to take a sabbatical from his job as head coach of New Zealand Super Rugby franchise the Chiefs -- could complete a full house of unbeaten Lions tours if they beat the Springboks as they beat the Wallabies in 2013.

Rassie Erasmus, South Africa's World Cup-winning coach and director of rugby, said the tour represented a special opportunity for those South African players with a World Cup winners medal.

"There are players who have been to three Rugby World Cups and finished their careers with a winner's medal yet never got to play against the Lions," said Erasmus.

"They only come around every 12 years for our players and only a few of them ever have the privilege of wearing the Springbok jersey in a Lions series."

Adding a bit of extra spice to the series is Gatland seeking some measure of revenge for the Springboks having ended his hopes of bowing out of the Wales job with the mantle as world champions as they edged them in the semi-finals.

"The Lions performed extremely well on their previous two tours (in Australia and New Zealand) and will no doubt relish the opportunity to add the Springboks' scalp to their belt," said Erasmus in the Lions statement.

"They will operate like a well-oiled machine and we will have to work very hard to match them in every department, on and off the field."


July 3: British & Irish Lions v Stormers – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town

July 7: British & Irish Lions v South Africa 'Invitational' – Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth

July 10: British & Irish Lions v Sharks – Jonsson Kings Park, Durban

July 14: British & Irish Lions v South Africa ‘A’ Team – Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit

July 17: British & Irish Lions v Bulls – Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria

July 24 (first Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – FNB Stadium, Johannesburg

July 31 (second Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town

August 7 (third Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg