The British and Irish Lions’ summer tour to South Africa is set to go ahead as originally scheduled. Contingency plans, including staging the three-match Test series in the UK, were being considered due to ongoing uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
But following a succession of meetings, the Lions board has confirmed to SA Rugby its preference to stick with the initial plan of matches being hosted by South Africa during July and August.
Lions chairman Jason Leonard said in a statement: “After reviewing information relating to the various contingency scenarios being considered, I can confirm that the board’s intended position is for the tour to go ahead as scheduled in South Africa in 2021.
“We acknowledge that there is a significant amount of work still to be undertaken to deliver a robust Covid-19 countermeasure plan to ensure a successful, safe and uninterrupted tour. SA Rugby will have our full support to help implement this plan.”
The Lions, coached by Warren Gatland, are due to play Test matches in Johannesburg on July 24 and August 7, either side of a game in Cape Town on July 31. Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney indicated earlier on Tuesday that the tour would be cancelled if South Africa were unable to host it.
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) March 23, 2021
Earlier this month, the Lions board had turned down an offer from Australia to stage the tour. There is still uncertainty about whether crowds will be permitted to attend matches. President of SA Rugby Mark Alexander said: “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. But we are determined that the eventual outcome will deliver the best occasion and experience for players, supporters and our commercial partners.”
While there is now a clear path for the tour to proceed, Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney made it clear that, if South Africa are unable to host, then it will be cancelled. A guarantee the country is able to stage it has yet to be given amid fears that a third wave of coronavirus will begin in June, shortly before the Lions touch down for their battle with the world champions.
South Africa have been slow in their vaccine roll out and there are cost implications for the hosts if they are unable to welcome fans into stadiums. “If you look at the original agreement it says South Africa have an obligation to host the tour in South Africa and the Lions have an obligation to turn up and play,” Sweeney said.
“No one has ever said that can’t be fulfilled. What we’re now saying is, ‘Can we have absolute clarity on that, can you still host the Lions tour?’ We believe they’re saying they can. That needs to be cleared up in the next couple of days. We’re hoping to get some clarity around that in the course of this week. If they can’t host it then the agreement is off. We’ve probably run out of time on the UK. So you’re looking at playing in 2025.”
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