Boks likely to be tourists against British & Irish Lions in 2021

Boks likely to be tourists against British & Irish Lions in 2021
Mike Phillips of the Lions looks on as teammate Ugo Monye tackles Odwa Ndungane of South Africa during the British & Irish Lions Tour at Ellis Park in July 2009. (Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images)

It is increasingly likely that the Springboks’ scheduled 2021 home series against the British & Irish Lions will take place in the UK in July 2021.

The British & Irish Lions is a name synonymous with tours. The Lions were established as a touring team and throughout their 133-year existence have always travelled to hostile rugby countries in search of glory.

But in 2021, the Lions are set to do something they have never done, and to be frank, never wanted to do. They will be the home team in a series against one of the giants of the southern hemisphere, and therefore of the sport of rugby.

It looks increasingly likely that the Springboks against the Lions will have to happen in Britain (and possibly Ireland) to make it commercially viable. There is now a definitive timeline for fans to be allowed back into stadiums in England, which strengthens the case for the Lions hosting the Boks. 

The Lions have played “home” Tests before – most recently against Argentina at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in 2005 (which ended in a 25-25 draw), and will host Japan at Murrayfield in Edinburgh on 26 June 2021.

The Lions have never played a full series on home soil. It would be unprecedented and a 180-degree departure from what the Lions traditionally represent – the best players from Britain and Ireland undertaking a rugby invasion of a foreign land.

But the coronavirus has changed reality and challenged all forms of society to come up with solutions to problems that were never imagined as little as a year ago. It’s the new reality we live in, and even if traditionalists despise the idea of a home Lions series, the alternative of abandoning the 2021 tour entirely is hardly a solution either.

The pandemic and the slower-than-hoped vaccination roll-out in South Africa have virtually ensured the country cannot host the 2021 tour the way it was intended.

England to allow mass gatherings by June

Ten days ago, the UK government announced that fans are to be allowed back in stadiums by June, based on a four-step reopening plan. That announcement immediately made the Lions tour in England (and probably Wales and Scotland, too) the most feasible option. 

According to the plan, which Boris Johnson’s government stressed “would be guided by data rather than dates”, 21 June is the earliest that all restrictions on mass gatherings will be lifted in England. This is heavily predicated on the roll-out of vaccinations to the British public. 

But it fits in neatly with the Lions series dates and would allow for an atmospheric series, albeit with the Springboks as the touring team. 

None of this is official yet, as the Lions organisation and SA Rugby continue to thrash out every possible scenario. Hosting the tour in Australia, where limited crowds are allowed, was proposed by Rugby Australia with a government guarantee to underwrite the cost of putting on such a massive show. 

But that proposal has been shrugged off by SA Rugby and, more importantly, by the broadcasters. 

The rights to this series were sold on the basis that the time zone would primarily suit a UK and Irish audience. The tour was sold at a premium because of South Africa’s time zone in relation to the UK. A tour in Australia would require a broadcast renegotiation to reduce the price, which no one wants three months before the tour is about to start. 

The Australian proposal is also predicated on the fact that that country has somehow defeated Covid-19. It hasn’t. Moving the entire excursion to a country with no vested interest in the 2021 tour, with the risk that it could still be scuppered by the virus, makes little sense. 

Lions in the UK will be a blow to SA GDP 

Fans are unlikely to be allowed into South African stadiums in time for the July series and therefore an estimated 27,000 touring Lions supporters, media and VIPs won’t be able to roam the country, spending millions and contributing to the economy. 

Concerns about what a rugby tour brings to a country’s GDP are not foremost in the thinking of SA Rugby or the Lions organisation. It’s just a happy spin-off from a successful concept. But it will be a blow nonetheless. 

SA Rugby projections for the tour in a “normal” scenario, which Daily Maverick has seen, put the “direct, indirect and induced impact of direct spend” at R6.6-billion to the South African economy. “Direct expenditure” was budgeted to be R3.5-billion. 

Those projections were based on figures of 172,000 people (which includes domestic “tourists”) spending a combined 394,000 days following the Lions tour.

That potential loss of income is a blow to the country and to Gauteng and the Western Cape in particular, who were budgeted to see an increase in economic activity of R1.5-billion and R1.2-billion respectively. 

A fan-less series held in empty stadiums across South Africa would also be a financial blow for SA Rugby. The tour was set to earn rugby’s governing body R500-million, the bulk of which is made up of broadcast rights income.

The loss of ticket sales, if the tour goes ahead in South Africa without fans, would be significant, but compared with the broadcast income it would be manageable. 

Having fans in stadiums is the best-case scenario, and the only viable way that could happen, based on current trends in terms of lockdowns and vaccination roll-outs, is to have the tour in Britain.  

No chance of postponement 

Another option is to postpone the tour by a year, but the chances of that are slimmer than the Springboks playing next week.

In theory, a 2022 Lions tour would see a completed roll-out of vaccinations and perhaps the end of Covid-19 as a major global threat. 

Lions tours are planned years in advance, which clubs factor into their planning and contracting. Pushing back the dates by a year does not mean that every other moving part would simply fall into line. There is already resistance to the idea, and since it would be a year before the 2023 Rugby World Cup, there are high-performance issues to consider. 

Elite coaches have planned their players’ schedules to the minute and a Lions tour one year out from a RWC wrinkles those plans. But that argument is pretty weak considering RWC 2023 would still be 14 months after a possible 2022 Lions tour.

All the home unions have July 2022 tours scheduled, so it’s not like their players would be resting in that window anyway. But “high performance” is a caveat they prefer to hide behind.

Postponing the tour comes down to the will of all parties to make it happen. The reality, though, is that most clubs and the home unions endure the Lions concept rather than embrace it. They are grudgingly willing to make concessions every four years. Rescheduling by a year does not suit their agendas. Postponement of the tour by a year is therefore highly unlikely. 

It appears the Lions tour will happen in the UK in July, or it won’t happen at all. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    Surely by July, most people in the UK will have been vaccinated and a significant number in SA. Lions supporters from the UK would have to be able to demonstrate certified proof of completed vaccination to be allowed into SA. There should be enough vaccinated Lions supporters and SA residents to fill the Test stadia.
    The benefit to the economy of SA of having the Lions tour come to SA would be like CPR for the beleaguered hospitality industry.

    • Lee Richardson says:

      Unfortunately, SAs vaccine rollout is going as expected. Phase 1 (healthcare workers) is going very slowly with less than 10,000 jabs per day (yesterday was 3,000). Phase 2 is only scheduled to get going in May and I doubt the daily numbers will be any better. The ANC, and most health-sector commentators, agree that the 3rd wave is inescapable. Even if our rollout was world-class, the ANC will certainly not be hurried into decisions, and a rugby tour, despite all the money involved, will sadly not be of any concern to them.

  • Rodney Weidemann says:

    SA Rugby should take a long hard look at the Health Passport app that was launched last week in Cape Town, in association with Big Concerts (another bunch who, I would imagine, are super-eager to get people back in stadiums).
    Having done the 15 minute PCR test and seen how it works, how secure it is (in terms of the individual’s personal health data) and been told the kind of numbers that could be approved within a 3-day period, I believe this could seriously be the answer to us playing the Lions Series at home!

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