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

Boks likely to be tourists against British & Irish Lions in 2021
Lions captain Paul O' Connell beats Victor Matfield in the line-out during the third Test match between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions at Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg, in this file picture. (Photo: Stu Forster / Getty 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.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

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. They will be the home team in a series against one of the giants of the southern hemisphere.

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 Britain, which strengthens the case for the Lions hosting the Boks.

The Lions have played “home” Tests, most recently against Argentina 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 a departure from what the Lions traditionally represent – the best players from Britain and Ireland undertaking a rugby invasion of a foreign land.

But Covid-19 has changed reality. Even if traditionalists despise the idea of a home Lions series, the alternative is abandoning the 2021 tour entirely. The pandemic and the slower-than-hoped vaccination roll-out in SA have ensured the country cannot host the 2021 tour the way it was intended.

UK fans can gather from June

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

According to the plan, “guided by data rather than dates”, 21 June is the earliest that all restrictions on mass gatherings will be lifted in Britain. This depends on the vaccine roll-out to the British public. But it fits in neatly with the Lions series dates, and would allow for an atmospheric series.

None of this is official yet. 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 the government underwriting the cost of the massive show. But that proposal was 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 SA’s time zone in relation to the UK. A tour in Australia would require a broadcast renegotiation.

The Lions tour in SA was scheduled to have three Tests and five provincial matches. It’s understood the Lions still favour the eight-match tour if it is held in the UK, meaning leading SA provincial sides will also be based in the UK for parts of the tour.

Fans are unlikely to be allowed into South African stadiums in time for the July series, so 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 GDP are not foremost in the minds of SA Rugby or the Lions organisation, but it will be a blow nevertheless.

SA Rugby projections for the tour in a “normal” scenario, which DM168 has seen, put the “direct, indirect and induced impact of direct spend” at R6.6-billion to the South African economy. “Direct expenditure” was projected 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, which had budgeted to see an increase in economic activity of R1.5-billion and R1.2-billion, respectively.

A fanless 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 income from broadcast rights.

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. 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 for 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 every other moving part would simply fall into line. There is already resistance to the idea. Because it would be a year until the 2023 Rugby World Cup (RWC), 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. 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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