The British and Irish touring side finally confirmed that if the tour takes place at all, it will be in South Africa. There had been contingencies to host the series in the UK, Australia, or to delay it until 2022 but none could be made to work.
RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney said yesterday they had “run out of runway” to arrange a series on home shores and that the only viable options were to play it in South Africa — with or without fans — or delay until 2025, when the Lions are due to tour Australia.
“It is great South Africa have come back to us and confirmed they can definitely do it,” said Sweeney. “Now we can focus on that and plan for that.
“It has been a hell of a 12 months. It is nice to have a bit of certainty in what has been an unbelievably volatile and uncertain world.”
As well as a game at Murrayfield against Japan before departing for South Africa, the Lions originally
had tour games in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, Mbombela and Pretoria, before three Tests against the world champions in Johannesburg (two) and Cape Town.
But it seems highly likely there will be adjustments to the schedule so that fewer venues are used and less travel is required, making biosecure arrangements simpler and reducing the risk of Covid-19 ruining the series. It would also reduce the costs of a tour that is coming together at late notice.
The close proximity and ample stadia in Pretoria and Johannesburg make it likely that much of the tour will be played there, in challenging conditions at altitude. It is now over to South African rugby authorities to lobby their government to allow fans into matches, and for them to provide a safe way to do so — which would require agreement from the Lions.
South Africa has recorded the most positive Covid-19 tests in Africa — more than 1.5million, with 52,000 deaths — but rates are falling after a second wave in January. Testing has not been as widespread as in other parts of the world, however. The vaccination programme is also in its infancy.
In that light, reduced capacity in stadiums seems the best-case scenario, and the prospect of fans from the British Isles travelling looks a long shot. The safety of the participants will be a central discussion point, especially after England’s cricketers declared halfway through their tour of South Africa in November that they were unhappy with biosecurity arrangements.
Mark Alexander, president of SA Rugby, said: “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.”