Australian hopes of pressuring the British and Irish Lions into agreeing to take their South Africa tour Down Under this summer are doomed by their offer of only a minimum financial guarantee.
The perceived pressure being created by Rugby Australia is not impressing Lions officials with the bullish comments from Hamish McLennan, the chairman of Rugby Australia, trying to give their case a strength not recognised by those who will make the final decision. “They haven’t given a guarantee – it’s a minimum guarantee,” said a Lions source.
If a South African tour takes place then the financial risk lies with the host country rather than the Lions which is not the case with a tour in Britain.
The Lions cannot afford to agree to any deal that leaves them liable for a shortfall in income which is why the UK Treasury is currently considering a request to provide the financial guarantees to shield the most famous touring team from being left with a massive bill if the eight-match tour is switched to Britain and then hit by another lockdown. After a host country – New Zealand in 2017 – has taken their income, the remaining profit generated by a Lions tour is shared between the Home Unions which means there is no ‘float’ to cover any future losses.
The Australian offer is seen as part of their hearts and minds campaign to host the Rugby World Cup in 2027 and the Lions are adamant they will not be pushed into a corner. With so many variables still in the equation, the Lions have not set a date when they need to make a final decision on where the tour will be staged.
The Lions board is still focussed on how to deliver, if possible, a “traditional” tour and the only criteria they are using is safety not money and it will only be taken away from South Africa and moved to either the UK or Australia if the tour party and expected tens of thousands of fans travelling to South Africa are left exposed to the threat of COVID-19 this summer.
Lions officials are adamant that nothing has been decided yet and the proposed eight-match tour of South Africa – the preferred option – is still on the table. Lions head coach Warren Gatland has already looked at holding a month-long training camp in Jersey to create a Lions bubble. It is understood that postponing the tour for a year – possibly only playing tests in South Africa – is an option the Lions board do not favour with the Home Unions having individual tours already in place.
Discussions are ongoing with South African government ministers but with the UK forging ahead with its vaccination programme, moving the tour to a first ever ‘home’ Lions series with South Africa becomes an attractive alternative although John Spencer, the former Lions player and manager on the 2017 tour to New Zealand, sees that option as destroying the ‘ethos’ of the Lions.
Spencer told the Yorkshire Post he would support postponing the tour until 2022, just a year before the World Cup in France. Spencer said: “Playing it anywhere other than South Africa this year may well help to destroy the ethos of the Lions; the very creed of the Lions is going to another country.
“It’s about spreading the gospel of rugby and all these countries absolutely adore the Lions. I’m not sure what will happen next but if they did have it here I’m not sure crowds would flock to see the Lions at home anyway. I would like to see the tour postponed for a year and then everyone will have exactly the same in South Africa in 2022.”
The Lions are scheduled to play Japan in Edinburgh on June 26 before flying to Cape Town for the three test series against the World Cup winners.
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