The latest developments on this year’s planned tour to South Africa

Will the 2021 Lions tour go ahead?

The much-awaited 2021 Lions tour is due to start with a Test against Japan at BT Murrayfield at the end of June before Warren Gatland’s squad play eight matches, including three Tests, in South Africa in July and August.

However, there has been much speculation about where, or even if, this year’s tour will take place given the global pandemic and ongoing travel restrictions. The fact that new variants of Covid have been identified in the UK and South Africa has only intensified concerns.

Will the 2021 Lions tour go ahead?

There have been regular meetings between the Lions and SA Rugby, with several contingency plans being discussed.

Three options were considered: playing the tour in South Africa as planned, playing matches in the UK and Ireland, or relocating the tour to Australia.

The Lions and SA Rugby have now announced that they are committed to the tour being held in South Africa as planned.

Related: Lions commit to South Africa tour

There are still a lot of unknowns with regards to whether supporters will be permitted and what Covid-19 protocols teams will have to follow, but both the hosts and the tourists want to proceed with the original schedule.

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 tours are known for tens of thousands of fans heading to the other side of the world to pack out stadiums, but that still looks very unlikely given ongoing travel restrictions.

The prospect of playing matches in the UK and Ireland had gained traction given the ‘roadmap out of lockdown’ announced by Boris Johnson. If the plans go smoothly, fans in England are expected back in stadiums in mid-May, albeit at reduced capacity. Restrictions on social contact could be lifted from 21 June, meaning capacity crowds from then on – just in time for the Lions dates!

Related: Lions 2021 schedule as it stands

The Mail reported that the Lions asked the UK Government to underwrite the tour and cover any financial losses should there be delays in fans returning to grounds in Britain and Ireland. With no guarantee forthcoming, the Lions have opted to stick with the original plan.

The third option was moving the entire tour to Australia, where sporting events have been staged with crowds in recent months, but it was not seen as financially viable.

Crowds are back to watch Super Rugby AU in Australia (Getty Images)

Rugby World view

It’s a positive move by the Lions to commit to touring South Africa and provides clarity on plans, but there are still numerous questions to be answered.

We’d all love the Lions tour to take place in South Africa this year as planned with fans, but if it has to be played behind closed doors is it really financially viable? With the Lions and SA Rugby agreeing to a joint venture when it comes to commercial deals, there should still be the generation of much-needed revenue for both entities, but the absence of fans would be a financial blow for the hosts as well as a big departure for Lions tours.

What Covid protocols will need to be implemented to avoid any postponements, as we had in the Six Nations with France v Scotland? What if there’s another Covid wave in South Africa between now and July?

Let’s hope it all goes ahead as planned but it doesn’t look 100% certain – and then what?

will the 2021 Lions tour go ahead?

Mike Phillips in action during the 2009 series – the last time the Lions toured SA (Getty Images)

Many have proposed postponing the tour a year, but all the home unions have summer tours scheduled for July 2022 and those Test series are a crucial part of their preparation for the World Cup 15 months later. If a team’s best players are away with the Lions, that preparation will suffer and it’s hard to see national coaches signing off on that.

Plus, if the Lions tour took place in 2022 the players involved would return to go straight into a World Cup season. Yes, they would get a short off-season – probably around five weeks – but then it would be club action, November Tests, club action, Six Nations, club action, World Cup training camps, World Cup warm-ups, the World Cup itself, and then back to another season.

That’s a long and intense period of top-level rugby, so you hope players are involved in these discussions too.

If keeping the 2021 schedule doesn’t look viable, I’d propose moving the tour to 2025, when the Lions are due to visit Australia, and shifting all subsequent tours back four years (ie Australia 2029, New Zealand 2033).

Yes, it means an eight-year wait between Lions tours but it may be the best long-term solution and minimises disruption across other competitions. Of course, if rugby ever sorted out its calendar there wouldn’t be as much disruption but that’s a topic for another day.

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