Jon Cardinelli provides the latest insight into the state of rugby in South Africa

Lions tour crucial to SA Rugby’s survival

It’s not hard to understand why the powers that be are toying with the idea of staging the British & Irish Lions series in the United Kingdom or even as far afield as Australia.

The rejigged domestic season in South Africa has been marred by game cancellations after various players have tested positive for Covid-19. The Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup tournaments have played out in empty stadiums, and the absence of a crowd has certainly robbed these fixtures of colour and significance.

South African rugby finds itself in a desperate financial situation. SA Rugby as well as the respective unions took an enormous hit during a six-month period of inactivity last year.

The domestic season restarted on 10 October – nearly four months after the New Zealanders returned via Super Rugby Aotearoa. While SA Rugby received a timely cash injection from SANZAAR, despite the grounding of the Springboks, the unions continued to suffer big losses due to the ban on crowds at domestic matches.

Lions tour crucial to SA Rugby’s survival

Men at the top: Rassie Erasmus with Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber (Getty Images)

Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus addressed the media recently and confirmed that the South Africans need the Lions tour to go ahead in any shape or form.

While hosting the Lions in South Africa remains first prize, SA Rugby will consider any viable option that improves its financial situation. To be clear, this is not about greed or about sacrificing the integrity of the game on the altar of profit. These are extraordinary times, and SA Rugby is fighting for survival.

The Covid-19 situation in South Africa has not improved over the past few months. When news of a vaccine emerged and case numbers stabilised, administrators hoped that restrictions would be eased and that the big crowds would return in time for the Currie Cup play-offs.

Sadly, the opposite has come to pass. A second wave has hit South Africa hard, and president Cyril Ramaphosa has responded by tightening restrictions on access and movement. It may be some time yet before the vaccine is rolled out and the necessary number receive the jab.

There are certainly more pressing concerns at present than the number of spectators permitted at a sporting event. And yet, it is alarming to note that the decision about the Lions tour will be made shortly after the Currie Cup final was staged in an empty stadium.

The decider at Loftus Versfeld was interrupted by lightning in the area. The game eventually resumed, and stretched into extra-time. Many wondered if the players would complete the fixture and all of their post-match obligations before the national curfew of 9pm was enforced.

Could a Lions tour be staged in such conditions? There is certainly an argument to be made for the players touring South Africa and experiencing the challenge of facing the local franchises, as well as the Springboks, on home turf.

And yet, the Lions product would be greatly diminished by the absence of fans that create a unique and special atmosphere in and around the grounds.

The 2009 tour was an absolute triumph. The travelling fans certainly made an impression, whether they were cheering for their team inside the various stadiums or spending their pounds and euros at various outlets between games.

Lions tour crucial to SA Rugby’s survival

Bringing cheer: Ugo Monye celebrates scoring a try with Lions fans in 2009 (Getty Images)

That tour, that atmosphere, was a credit to the Lions concept. It also ensured that SA Rugby – as well as the South African economy – received a substantial financial boost.

A series staged behind closed doors will have zero atmosphere. Over the past few months, local franchises have attempted to simulate the noise of a crowd by blasting cheers and jeers through the stadium speakers – with disastrous results.

As a member of the media, I have been granted access to some of the Currie Cup matches and can vouch for the fact that watching a game in a vast, empty stadium is a depressing experience.

A few former Springboks, now working as commentators, have described the whole exercise as ‘terrible’. Bok skipper Siya Kolisi recently admitted that the players don’t enjoy competing behind closed doors.

Is there any point in staging a Lions series in South Africa if fans are barred from attending the matches, and if travel restrictions limit the number of foreigners who can enter the country?

It would appear that other options which allow for live crowds are being closely explored. And as Erasmus mentioned recently, SA Rugby is willing to consider any option that improves the organisation’s financial situation.

It remains to be seen whether the Covid situation in the United Kingdom will improve and whether crowds will be back in the stadiums by July.

What we do know – or more pertinently, what those tasked with making this decision know – is that Australia has already hosted a series of international sporting events in front of big crowds over the past few months. Hence Australia’s offer to host this series.

How bizarre would that be: a series between the Lions and South Africa taking place halfway across the world. How many South Africans – aside from those living in Australia – would have the resources to fly to Australia and watch those games live? How many Lions fans have been hit by the pandemic and will struggle to afford such a journey as well as the cost of spending six weeks Down Under?

The pound and euro certainly won’t get you as far in Australia as it does in South Africa. And, of course, it depends on whether they would be allowed to travel.

Sadly, these are bizarre and extraordinary times. There is no elegant solution to this problem, and – barring a significant change to the Covid situation in the country – it seems likely that South Africa will miss out on the chance to stage this magnificent event.

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