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British & Irish Lions tour in balance due to Covid chaos

British & Irish Lions tour in balance due to Covid chaos
Paul O'Connell, the Lions captain beats Ryan Kankowski (L) and Victor Matfield to the high ball during the Third Test match between South African and the British and Irish Lions at Ellis Park Stadium on July 4, 2009 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The world of sport is currently in the stranglehold of an unprecedented situation. While no contingency scenario will be perfect, playing the Lions – somehow, somewhere – is critical.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Creative solutions will be needed as it becomes increasingly unlikely that the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa to face the world champion Springboks will go ahead as scheduled.

It has been a trying time for rugby and the end of 2020 hasn’t magically put the ravages of Covid-19 behind the sport. In South Africa, the situation is precarious and the prospect of a British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa being cancelled could have a catastrophic impact on the industry.

The harsher second wave of the pandemic, with the more infectious new strain of the virus, has thrown new doubt over sports events and schedules. Globally, sports are braced for another difficult first quarter.

Following a year in which SA Rugby, in conjunction with the 14 provincial unions and more than 1,200 employees (including players), made decisive cost cuts to keep the sport afloat, the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour was seen as a silver bullet to inject vital income.

The Lions are due to arrive in South Africa for their eight-match, three-Test tour on 27 June. But, as it stands now, no fans would be allowed in the stadiums, which makes the tour commercially unviable. Sponsorship and broadcast income from the Lions tour could earn SA Rugby about R500-million. The potential loss of that income, the year after the industry shaved off close to R1-billion in a Covid-19-related mitigation plan, would force a massive contraction of the sport.

Active Boks crucial to earnings

SA Rugby’s various commercial and broadcast deals are vital to sustaining the rugby ecosystem through disbursements to unions and contracting of players, which offsets the provincial unions’ wage costs.

The Springboks are directly responsible for 85% of SA Rugby’s broadcast income and 64% of all SA Rugby’s sponsorship income. In a normal year, the Boks earn nearly R750-million of SA Rugby’s income.

A Lions tour adds hundreds of millions to that figure and when you consider the Boks didn’t play in 2020, it doesn’t take an accountant to understand the urgency of the Boks playing Test rugby this year.

As the second wave of Covid-19 impacts the global community and with uncertainty over South Africa’s vaccine rollout as the 2021 tour date approaches, time is running out to make a definitive call.

“As you would expect, we are progressing with our plans based on the latest information available to us,” said British & Irish Lions managing director Ben Calveley.

“However, given the uncertainty that continues to be caused by the coronavirus pandemic both in South Africa as well as the UK and Ireland, we are very aware of the need to make a timely decision on the best way forward; not least so that we can provide clarity to supporters booked to travel to South Africa next summer, or those thinking of making the trip.

“The Lions Board has had repeated meetings to discuss all scenarios available and is in constant dialogue,” he said.

“It will meet throughout January and into February, if required, to review all relevant information and data. After further consultation with SA Rugby, we will update on the outcome of these meetings in due course.” 

Scenario planning

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught sports bodies anything, it’s to be flexible and innovative. All the old rules of engagement don’t apply and, for the Lions tour to happen, there may have to be some compromise.

Aside from the obvious first choice of the tour going ahead as planned, complete with thousands of British and Irish fans descending on South Africa, there are other contingencies under discussion.

The first of those is the unpalatable scenario of the matches being played in cavernous, empty stadiums.

The thought of the 94,700-seater FNB Stadium hosting a Test with about 200 people in it is just too depressing.

All sporting events have been played without fans over the past six months since hard lockdowns ended, but the Lions tour is unique, made so by the hords of travelling fans who enter the host country.

The Lions touring party is not just made up of the 70 members of the official squad. It is, by extension and tradition, a squad of 50,000 or more, who traverse the globe to follow the four-yearly showpiece.

The contract between the Lions and the host country (whether South Africa, New Zealand or Australia) makes stringent demands on allotted tickets for travelling Lions supporters.

So, without them, the tour will almost certainly not go ahead.

The second scenario is delaying the tour to November this year or to July 2022. Sources indicate that SA Rugby favours a November time slot as an alternative, but any change in schedule dates would be almost impossible given that World Rugby’s calendar has been laid out for the next three years.

The Lions board has a hard enough time convincing British and Irish clubs and Test unions to release players every four years in a stable timeslot where allowances are factored into four-yearly scheduling.

To simply move it out by a year is not feasible. Ireland for instance, are touring New Zealand for a three-Test series in 2022. There is little chance that Irish Rugby authorities would take on the All Blacks with a second-string team while 10-15 of their top players were in South Africa with the Lions.

The third and, perhaps, most radical option is moving the tour to the northern hemisphere with the Boks as the touring team.

It’s likely that, by July, Britain and Ireland will have vaccinated most of the population, possibly allowing for full stadiums.

That would be a massive departure from the Lions ethos, where they arrive as potential conquerors of a southern land and where rare series’ victories become legendary.

But the world of sport, which has become increasingly global in the past 50 years, is in the stranglehold of an unprecedented situation. No contingency scenario will be perfect, but playing the Lions, somehow, somewhere is critical.

The alternative of complete cancellation of the tour would be a mortal blow to South African rugby as we know it. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Stuart Burnett says:

    If, as suggested, Britain and Ireland will have vaccinated most of the population, what is the of the problem with 50,000 vaccinated players and supporters travelling to South Africa in June/July?

  • Benni North North says:

    Why does SARU not launch a crowd funding initiative. I certainly would be happy to make a contribution to keeping this sport in good shape. I am sure thousands of other rugby lovers would do the same.

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