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Lions won’t budge on extra SA ‘A’ game as tour strains under Covid disruptions

The British & Irish Lions have moved into a hotel in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. (Photo:Felix Dlangamandla/Daily Maverick)
By Craig Ray
12 Jul 2021 0

The British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa is reeling under pandemic strain while pockets of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng are on fire, with criminal looters wreaking havoc after protests erupted following the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. But the rugby show will go on, for now.

South Africa ‘A’ take on the touring Lions at Cape Town Stadium on Wednesday, 14 July, with the Stormers facing the Lions on 17 July at the same venue. Those fixtures were on the original schedule, but due to the slew of positive Covid-19 cases in the Bok camp, it was expected that the Stormers and SA ‘A’ matches would swap dates.

It was only at 9.30am on Monday, 12 July that the green light was given for the fixtures to remain as scheduled. That was after the Boks went through another set of PCR tests and were cleared. Which is good news.

But it also underlines just how this tour is operating in crisis mode, which is eroding its viability and credibility. How prepared can players be, physically, but more pertinently, emotionally and mentally to play such a significant series?

The director of rugby at SA Rugby, Rassie Erasmus, diplomatically dismissed claims that the series was losing credibility, but he has asked that the Stormers match be substituted for another SA ‘A’ game to give his side time to adequately prepare. 

Erasmus didn’t use the word “credibility”, but the implication was clear: “We need more time to be adequately prepared for the match.”

Lions coach Warren Gatland, though, rejected the idea at the same time as Erasmus was making his remarks. Gatland told a media conference: “That is not going to happen.”

Although talks continue between SA Rugby and the Lions, to convince the tourists it would be better for the series to give the Boks more time to prepare, it appears increasingly unlikely the tourists will do anything to help the Boks.

The Lions have managed to play three matches on tour so far, but every fixture has been affected by Covid while the Springboks were forced to abandon the second Test against Georgia last week because of a spate of positive results.

Clearly Gatland wants every advantage he can eke out, which possibly indicates that he is not overly confident. Keeping the Boks undercooked is a huge advantage to the tourists.

But in these extraordinary times with extraordinary demands and problems, the Lions’ refusal to bend to accommodate their hosts so that they can adequately prepare, seems against the spirit of the pandemic situation.

Conversely, the Lions are here to win a series and they will take any advantage handed to them. The Boks going into the Test with two matches (including the SA ‘A’ game) in 20 months is clearly a Lions advantage.  

“Our issue is not about gelling as a team, but about being match-fit for the first Test,” Erasmus said. “Long term we have to manage players’ mental wellbeing, and with player welfare being important it would really help us if we could get a third game in, before the first Test. It helps players’ mental state to go on the field knowing they are well prepared.

“But no, I don’t think the series is losing credibility because both sides are disrupted. Not having fans or losing players to Covid is like suffering injuries, so nothing has really changed. It will be the Lions’ best team next Saturday against the Springboks’ best team in the first Test.”

Tour plays out amid social upheaval

The bulk of the Springbok squad arrived in Cape Town on Sunday without its captain, Siya Kolisi, less than two weeks from the first Test against the Lions.

The increasingly difficult Covid-affected tour moved into a new phase, with both teams, sans a few squad members, arriving in the Mother City to prepare for two crucial weeks.

The Boks are without Kolisi and a handful of his colleagues, who are either Covid-19 positive or isolating as they recover from Covid, while the Lions were without a few troops, too.

Four rounds of PCR testing in the past week delivered new positive cases among the players and three among the team management.

The players who tested positive were Kolisi, Dan du Preez, (both loose forwards), Ox Nché (prop), Bongi Mbonambi, Scarra Ntubeni (both hookers) and Makazole Mapimpi (wing).

With two hookers among the positive Covid-19 test results and all the players who tested positive expected to follow strict return-to-play protocols, Sharks hooker Fez Mbatha has been drafted into the squad as cover. Vodacom Bulls prop Lizo Gqoboka has also been called up as additional prop cover.

Last week the Boks first revealed that lock Lood de Jager had tested positive. They later named Handré Pollard, Frans Malherbe, Marvin Orie and Frans Steyn as further cases. 

Western Cape tour switch as riots rock Gauteng and KZN

The entire entourage moved from Johannesburg just in time as riots and looting escalated in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. It started as a semi-organised attempt to destabilise the country that has resulted in the South African National Defence Force being called in to quell tensions.

A country creaking under the strain of the global pandemic and Level 4 lockdown has an added threat of mob violence and political and social instability. These are macro issues that are the backdrop to a Lions tour that looks increasingly like folly for many reasons.

At a micro level, players are locked down in bio-bubbles, feeling trapped, and motivation is waning. One source at a provincial union indicated that the players are suffering from bio-bubble fatigue.

The Boks continue to present a positive image, but given how their squad has been affected by the Delta variant, forcing players into their rooms for a better part of a week, the mental health aspects of this situation must be taking a toll.

Last week there were 12 cases in the Bok squad, including coach Jacques Nienaber, who is apparently still isolating in Johannesburg and not with the team yet. Erasmus has taken over coaching duties.

The entire Bok squad lost a week of training time as everyone isolated in Johannesburg and the second Test against Georgia was cancelled. That cost the world champions a lot more valuable training time.

Given the uncertainty and constantly changing situation, it’s become almost impossible to plan any scenario beyond the current day. DM

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