Preference of Lions Board is to stick to scheduled playing window

Lions commit to South Africa tour

The British & Irish Lions are committed to touring South Africa this summer as scheduled in July and August.

There has been lots of speculation over the 2021 tour due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with contingency plans of hosting matches in the UK and Australia considered, but the Lions Board has now confirmed its preference to proceed with the tour to South Africa.

British & Irish Lions chairman Jason Leonard said: “After reviewing information relating to the various contingency scenarios being considered, I can confirm that the Board’s intended position is for the tour to go ahead as scheduled in South Africa in 2021.

“We acknowledge that there is a significant amount of work still to be undertaken to deliver a robust Covid-19 countermeasure plan to ensure a successful, safe and uninterrupted tour. SA Rugby will have our full support to help implement this plan.”

Lions commit to South Africa tour

Packed stands during the 2009 South Africa v Lions series (Getty Images)

However, there are still big question marks over whether fans will be able to attend matches – either those based in South Africa or travellers from overseas. Having to play matches behind closed doors would have a significant financial impact on SA Rugby and could still put the tour in doubt.

SA Rugby president Mark Alexander said: “We appreciate the Lions’ faith and share their desire to see a safe and successful tour.

“We have been in regular contact with our government to make that a reality against the backdrop of the pandemic and its predicted progression over the coming months.

“There are serious financial implications for SA Rugby, should the event take place without any supporters in attendance, and we cannot ignore that in our considerations. But we are determined that the eventual outcome will deliver the best occasion and experience for players, supporters and our commercial partners.”

The original 2021 Lions tour schedule could also be changed because of those considerations.

Lions commit to South Africa tour

Jason Leonard leads out the Lions during the 1997 tour to South Africa (Getty Images)

Leonard added: “Every British and Irish player dreams of wearing the famous red jersey, and players from the southern hemisphere aspire to be part of a Lions series. We owe it to the current players vying for a place in both squads to ensure they can become part of Lions history.

“We are very much looking forward to taking on South Africa for what promises to be a highly-competitive series against the reigning world champions.”

The pre-tour Test between the Lions and Japan, which is due to take place at BT Murrayfield on Saturday 26 June, is still in the schedule, but a decision on crowd size will be made closer to the time to ensure it is in line with UK Government regulations.

Lions commit to South Africa tour – Rugby World Verdict

Let’s start with the positives, writes RW editor Sarah Mockford. The announcement gives us clarity on what the plans are and proceeding with the South Africa schedule maintains the Lions’ touring ethos.

The beauty of the Lions is the best players in Britain and Ireland travelling to the other side of the world to try to overcome the odds of playing in hostile environments, and Jason Leonard and his board are sticking with that tradition.

However, fans are also an integral part of the Lions and it still looks extremely unlikely that the usual red hordes will be able to head south from the UK and Ireland. Even having home fans in attendance is far from assured, with matches played behind closed doors still a distinct possibility.

Having said that, fans are also integral to the Six Nations and 2021 has still delivered a cracking championship without them, although it would have been even better with them!

It’s also hard to see this announcement as 100% confirmation that the tour will go ahead – the Lions themselves describe it as an “intended position”, so there are no guarantees. If the Covid situation worsens over the coming months, we could be looking at a postponement until 2025.

There is still much to iron out in terms of Covid protocols as well. If there is an outbreak in a team, it could see one or even two matches cancelled – there’s no room in the schedule to postpone – so minimising the risk of transmission is crucial.

Jumping on a plane to a new venue every few days is the normal way of things on a Lions tour, but given the pandemic could matches be limited to one or two locations? It may be easier to reduce the risk if each team sets up camp in a single hotel, creating a ‘bubble’ where they can control the environment, but that can hardly be described as a ‘tour’.

So plenty of unanswered questions and much work for the organisers to do, but at least there is a plan of action. And let’s hope fans, even if limited in number, are permitted in stadiums when the tour begins in July.

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