Keith Wood believes it would be the “shame of shames” if the British and Irish Lions are severely damaged by the serious problems facing this year’s tour to South Africa, the former Ireland skipper instead claiming that delaying the Test series for four years may be the best option.

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At present, there are three possible scenarios due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic – proceed with the scheduled July tour to South Africa without fans, stage a Test series in Britain and Ireland, or move the tour to Australia. 

The Lions board is scheduled to announce its decision midway through February having consulted the various stakeholders, but for the Lions to delay their South African tour until 2025 would require Australia to agree to put back their tour by four years.

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A member of the series-winning 1997 Lions tour to South Africa, Wood told RugbyPass: “Because of the extraordinary problems this year a Lions tour may become a pale version of what it normally is and that may be the least worst option. I cannot see it in South Africa with all the travelling and the need for bubbles. 

“The Australian option seems fraught with complication, quarantine and potential player welfare issues. It also has a different time zone and the commercial contracts will be impacted. There is nothing easy in any of this.

“We could end up with something in Britain and Ireland and people will say it’s not the Lions, but it may be the most viable option this year. In truth, I believe the Lions needs supporters at the games and if this is not possible it may require delaying the cycle for four years.”

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A 2001 Lions tourist to Australia, Wood is acutely aware of the ramifications of delaying the tour until 2025, but his strong family ties – his father Gordon was also a Lion – makes saving the most famous touring team for future players absolutely crucial. 

He added: “There is heart and head here. The Lions is commercially one of the big brands in rugby and emotionally it brings together supporters from four countries which is unique in international sport and you want to preserve that.

“However, the Lions is being consistently squeezed and my fear is that if it goes too far from what is a touring side with 30,000 fans to games at home with no fans, will it keep its special place in rugby’s hearts? 

“And if the Lions loses its allure that would be the shame of shames. It could be better to say, ‘Let’s delay the Lions cycle by four years with the tour to South Africa taking place in 2025 and push everyone back and preserve what is an incredible spectacle’.

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“I don’t think you can put the tour into another year because that would drive the unions mad, the clubs mad while changing World Cup preparation cycles.

“My father went on the Lions tour in 1959 and it was four months playing Canada on the way and Australia and touring New Zealand, so not every Lions tour has to be identical. I like innovative thinking and I don’t dismiss things out of hand, but we are living in unprecedented times and have to think differently.

“When you talk about the tour you put in so many caveats because we don’t have all the information on how Covid-19 is changing and how different countries are adapting its laws to deal with the crisis.

“I hope the guys sitting in the room weighing it up with the lawyers and the commercial people are able to say there is a justification to play the tour this year safely, while also protecting the future of Lions tours. That is a near-impossible decision to make.”

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