Your essential guide to this year’s British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa


Lions 2021 tour: Everything you need to know

Sport’s most famous touring team – the British & Irish Lions – head to South Africa in 2021 to face the world champions in a three-Test series.

The Lions are made up of the best rugby players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – traditional rivals coming together to travel to the other side of the world and take on the top sides from the southern hemisphere, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

This year’s tour will be like no other due to Covid-19. The Lions are likely to operate in a ‘bubble’ to reduce the risk of transmission while there will be no ‘sea of red’ in the stands, with the famous travelling army of supporters unable to attend due to restrictions.

Still, there is plenty to get excited about and we have all the information you need…

When is the 2021 Lions tour?

The Lions will play nine matches in June, July and August 2021, including a pre-tour fixture against Japan in Edinburgh and a three-Test series against the Springboks.

The Japan fixture takes place on Saturday 26 June and the players whose seasons have ended by 13 June will travel to a ten-day training camp beforehand. Those members of the squad involved in the Gallagher Premiership semi-finals/final, Guinness Pro14 Rainbow Cup final or Greene King IPA Championship final will join up with the squad once their club commitments have ended.

Lions 2021

A general view of Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg (Sportsfile/Getty Images)

The squad will travel to South Africa after the Japan fixture to play five warm-up matches and the three Tests against the world champions.

The original schedule had the Lions travelling around South Africa, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic matches will now be played in just three cities – Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria.

The Test matches will take place on consecutive Saturdays – 24 July, 31 July and 7 August – with the first match in Cape Town and the following two in Johannesburg.

Related: British & Irish Lions fixtures

Who is the 2021 Lions coach?

Warren Gatland was announced as head coach for this year’s Lions tour to South Africa in June 2019.

The New Zealander, who played in the Waikato front row against the Lions in 1993, was voted the greatest ever rugby coach by Rugby World readers last year given his achievements with Wasps, Wales and the Lions.

Warren Gatland in action for Waikato against the 1993 Lions (Offside/Getty Images)

Gatland was first involved with the British & Irish tourists as an assistant to Ian McGeechan on the 2009 trip to South Africa.

He then took charge of the tours to Australia and New Zealand in 2013 and 2017 respectively, so this is his third time in the Lions head coach role. In 2013, he guided the Lions to a 2-1 series win over the Wallabies while in 2017 the tourists famously drew the series against the All Blacks.

For this year’s tour, Gatland will be assisted by Gregor Townsend (attack), Steve Tandy (defence), Robin McBryde (forwards) and Neil Jenkins (kicking).

Related: Warren Gatland’s Lions 2021 coaching team

Who is the 2021 Lions tour captain?

Rugby’s most-capped player, Alun Wyn Jones, was named as captain of the 2021 Lions.

Wales lock Jones made his Test debut in 2006 and has played 148 times for his country. He has also played in nine successive Tests for the Lions on the 2009, 2013 and 2017 tours to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand respectively – the first player to do so in the professional era.

Lions 2021

Alun Wyn Jones was named tour captain of the 2021 Lions (Getty Images)

Jones captained the Lions in the opening match against Japan in Edinburgh but dislocated his shoulder after just seven minutes and didn’t travel with the squad to South Africa.

Related: Alun Wyn Jones – by those who know him best

Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray was subsequently named as tour captain.

Who is in the 2021 Lions tour squad?

Warren Gatland has selected a 37-player British & Irish Lions squad for 2021. The breakdown of the original squad was 11 English players, ten Welsh players, eight Irish and eight Scots.

It is the first time Scotland have had eight representatives in a Lions squad since the 1993 tour to New Zealand – only two were chosen in the original 2017 squad.

Of the 37 players chosen, 19 were involved in the 2017 tour to New Zealand, although Scotland fly-half Finn Russell only briefly joined the squad to provide cover for the midweek matches before the first and second Tests.

Related: British & Irish Lions replacements

Captain Alun Wyn Jones, 35, is the oldest player picked and Louis Rees-Zammit, 20, the youngest. As the youngest member of the touring party, Wales wing Rees-Zammit will be responsible for carrying around ‘BIL’ – the cuddly lion toy mascot.

Injury ruled out Andrew Porter before the squad convened and the Ireland prop was replaced by England’s Kyle Sinckler.

Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric were both injured in the Japan match and were replaced by fellow Welshmen Adam Beard and Josh Navidi respectively.

Who is in the South Africa squad to face the Lions?

The Springboks named a 46-man squad for the Lions series, with the bulk of those players who won the Rugby World Cup in 2019 included. Only three players have retired since RWC 2019 – Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira, Francois Louw and Schalk Brits – and while there are a few injury concerns, a lot of those players are on the comeback trail.

Fly-half Handré Pollard made his return from injury against Bath in a European Challenge Cup semi-final at the start of May while Pieter-Steph du Toit – World Rugby Player of the Year in 2019 – has also been playing for the Stormers after 14 months on the sidelines.

The biggest worry is probably at lock, with Eben Etzebeth (finger), Lood de Jager (leg) and RG Snyman (ACL) all suffering injuries, although none have been officially ruled out of the Lions series yet.

Jacques Nienaber has taken over as Springboks head coach since the World Cup, with Rassie Erasmus reverting to his director of rugby role, but he is yet to guide his team in a Test. The Boks haven’t played since the RWC 2019 final win against England and will warm up for the Lions by playing two Tests against Georgia in early July.

South Africa celebrate their 2019 World Cup win (MB Media/Getty Images)

What broadcaster is showing the Lions 2021 matches?

Sky Sports has the UK and Ireland TV rights to show the Lions’ eight tour matches in South Africa. Channel 4 will show the Lions’ pre-tour fixture against Japan as well as highlights from the three Tests in South Africa.

Live radio commentary for all matches will also be aired by talkSPORT.

Related: Lions 2021 TV Coverage

Are the Lions and South Africa playing for a trophy?

Yes, the first perpetual trophy in the history of the Lions has been created for this year’s tour so whoever wins it will keep hold of it until the next series in South Africa.

The trophy was created by Thomas Lyte, the Lions’ official silverware supplier. It was crafted in London, took 150 hours to make and stands at 60cm tall.


What is the history of the British & Irish Lions?

Rugby’s legendary touring side dates back to 1888, when a 22-player squad sailed to Australia and New Zealand for a 249-day rugby tour. The ‘originals’ played 35 rugby games and another 19 of Aussie Rules, while captain Bob Seddon tragically died while canoeing on the Hunter River midway through the tour.

Three years later, in 1891, came the first ‘official’ tour and the first Test series, when a 21-man touring party travelled to South Africa, and there were further trips in the 19th Century in 1896 (South Africa) and 1899 (Australia).

The First and Second World Wars meant there were significant gaps between tours in the first half of the 20th Century, but regular trips resumed from 1950 onwards.

The ‘Lions’ nickname was first introduced in 1924 because the animal featured on the players’ ties and it was officially adopted in 1950, the same year the now famous red shirt was worn.

Related: History of the British & Irish Lions shirt

Two of the most well-known tours came in the Seventies. The 1971 tourists are still the only Lions team to win a series in New Zealand while the 1974 group are known as the ‘Invincibles’ after not losing a match in South Africa.

Since 1989, the Lions have toured every four years, alternating between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

In the past there have also been tours to Argentina and Canada as well as one-off matches against Fiji, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and France. In 2005, the Lions played the Pumas in Cardiff, in 2013 there was a fixture against the Barbarians in Hong Kong and this year they will play Japan in Edinburgh.

How many series have the Lions won in South Africa?

In the early days, before the Lions were known as the Lions, the tourists were comfortable series winners in South Africa in 1891 (3-0) and 1896 (3-1), but since then there have only been two triumphs.

Led by Willie John McBride – the most-capped Lion having played in 17 Tests –  the 1974 Lions went unbeaten on their 22-match tour to South Africa. They won 21 of their 22 games, including the first three Tests, and then drew the final match against South Africa.

Then in 1997, with Martin Johnson as captain and Ian McGeechan as coach, the tourists’ superb defence and goalkicking were key factors in building an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series. They won the first Test 25-16 – Matt Dawson scoring with a famous dummy down the blind side – before a late Jeremy Guscott drop-goal sealed an 18-15 victory in the second Test.

So the 2021 Lions are aiming for a first series win in South Africa for 24 years and only the fifth in history.

Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.