Home Lions series looks the ONLY option with Covid making tour of South Africa impossible – and the whole event faces threat of cancellation if it doesn’t happen this summer
- Lions tour of South Africa faces being cancelled if it doesn’t happen this summer
- It is now accepted the tour cannot go ahead as planned due to the pandemic
- The home unions believe the only other option is to stage the event in Britain
- A vaccination programme is being ramped up here but not in South Africa
The Lions are likely to face the threat of cancellation if they do not play South Africa in the UK and Ireland this summer, as the home unions are pushing hard for that contingency to be adopted.
It is now accepted that the tour which is scheduled to take place from late June until early August – culminating in a three-match series against the world champions Springboks – cannot go ahead due to Covid.
There has been a widespread clamour for a postponement until the same date range in 2022, but the latest indications are that this scenario is facing overwhelming opposition and logistical challenges which are deemed, within many official circles, to be insurmountable.
The Lions tour of South Africa is set to be cancelled if it isn’t staged this year in UK and Ireland
Well-placed sources have suggested to Sportsmail that there is growing acceptance that the existing slot must be used or the whole event – in whatever exact form – will be abandoned.
It is understood that World Rugby have no desire to mediate and help to broker a complex deal which would involve re-arranging 2022 Test tours which have already been provisionally agreed, such as England’s to Australia and Ireland’s to New Zealand.
The global governing body do not have any direct control in organising these fixtures, although they have to approve them. The home unions are thought to be refusing to countenance the upheaval which a Lions postponement would cause, partly due to national coaches’ resistance to changes impacting on their 2023 World Cup preparations.
Multiple sources have claimed that the home-union chief executives on the Lions board – Bill Sweeney (RFU), Philip Browne (IRFU), Mark Dodson (SRU) and Steve Phillips (WRU) – see home Lions fixtures as the only viable fall-back plan.
They regard matches against the Boks in London, Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff as a means of making sure there is a series, even if there can’t be a traditional tour – and also a means of securing vital revenue in this time of financial turmoil.
The Springboks were due to host the two-month tour but Covid has made that impossible
However, it is also acknowledged that the glaring flaw in that scenario is the on-going uncertainty created by the Covid pandemic. The home unions’ view is that it is a logical step, as a vaccination programme is being ramped up here while there is no imminent prospect of one starting in South Africa.
But they will have no guarantee about being able to welcome the capacity crowds which would go some way to justifying a decision to abandon the cherished tour format.
Officially, at this stage, all contingency options remain on the table. So, officially, postponement has not been ruled out and neither has the last-resort possibility of fulfilling the original fixture list in the existing South African venues, behind closed doors. But the latter scenario is a non-starter financially and the former increasingly appears doomed, in spite of popular support.
A decision is expected within the next month and the spotlight will fall on the four former players on the Lions board; chairman Jason Leonard (England), Tom Grace (Ireland), Gavin Hastings (Scotland) and Ieuan Evans (Wales).
Bill Sweeney and his fellow board chiefs see home Lions games as only viable fall-back plan
All four men represented the Lions and will understand the historic culture and ethos. Naturally, they would surely empathise with other former players who have expressed support for the campaign to postpone until 2022, however complex a task that is.
If that quartet unite in opposing the apparent will of their unions – that it must be 2021 or bust – then there may yet be a tense negotiation to decide what the Lions’ collective position will be. But in South Africa there is increasing concern that the tour will be lost as British and Irish officials will refuse to look beyond matches on these shores.
Meanwhile, the more pressing priority for the home unions is to finalise arrangements for the Six Nations against a backdrop of heightened, Covid-related restrictions.
For now, the tournament is still expected to take place as planned from February 6, but on Tuesday the French government asked for additional clarification about the protocols in Britain and Ireland, while authorising their national team’s opener against Italy in Rome.
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