Talk surrounding the British and Irish Lions’ upcoming tour of South Africa this weekend has been dominated by rumour, conjecture and worry. As it stands, the quadrennial trip will still be going ahead as planned in the summer, but the Lions confirmed on Saturday that they will be reviewing that stance over the coming months. With the rocketing coronavirus rate in both the United Kingdom and South Africa, as well as reports hinting that the South African variant could be resistant to the current vaccine, prospects of a normal Lions tour taking place in the summer are looking bleaker by the day.
Telegraph Sport understands, however, that the home nations’ tour is not under threat from total cancellation and that all options – cancellation aside – remain on the table. That seemingly leaves three outstanding possibilities: the first is continuing with the tour as planned – with or without fans; the second, is playing the tour on home soil, with warm-ups against European clubs and a 50/50 split in the commercial rights; the third is to postpone until later in the year or even 2022.
Below, Telegraph Sport assesses the three most-likely possibilities.
Playing in South Africa without fans
In September last year, South Africa Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said that a Lions tour taking place in his country without fans was not “commercially viable”. The tour, with its influx of tens of thousands of home nations fans, as well as sponsorship, advertising and broadcast deals, is worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the host nation. A report by PwC after the 2017 tour to New Zealand found that the trip contributed £107.4m ($194m) to the country’s GDP, creating 2,507 jobs.
“There has been some talk of moving it out [to a new date], but our travel advice is that by June/July, we should be at what is deemed to be normal international travel,” Roux said.
“No spectators and people not being able to travel would not make this commercially viable and then we would discuss how we continue with the tour.”
While Roux’s concern about the economic impact of a fan-less tour is valid, the sentimental kinship of rugby’s unique voyage cannot be overlooked. On a Lions tour, the pinnacle of many a player and fan’s rugby journey, rugby shares the limelight with a unique sense of camaraderie and intrepidness. Many players and fans make lifelong memories on these tours. Any trip without fans would rob them of that opportunity, while the buzz for players would surely be watered down without crowds, too.
In a sporting context, however, playing in South Africa behind closed doors is seemingly doable. This scenario would not affect rugby’s tight calendar, and broadcasters would still receive their content. Wherever they stay, Lions will take over an entire hotel, and can keep themselves in their own ‘bubble’, just like the West Indies and Pakistan cricket teams did in England this summer, admittedly on a smaller scale.
Playing on home soil
If South Africa has not established a mass-vaccination programme by the summer, which is looking increasingly likely, then this option comes into play. It does, of course, rely on the fact that the UK has made significant enough strides with the virus to allow fans to return to stadiums by July, of which there is no guarantee.
The South African economy would miss out, of course, but if it was this or nothing, what option do they have? There have already been reports that, in the event of this option, all revenues would be split evenly between the Lions and South Africa. While that would not be in the region of the £100m that they might have expected, it would provide some form of silver lining.
The Springboks could be hosted in a ‘bubble’, matches could take place across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and warm-ups – for both teams – could take place against domestic sides. But this all still relies on the virus being almost-entirely under control in the United Kingdom. If South Africa picked up a positive case in one of their warm-ups, for instance, then all of the logistics and organisation that went into the tour would have all been futile.
The crux is whether it is worth selling off the essence of a Lions ‘tour’ for this option, and undertaking all the planning and logistics which that entails, considering that it is by no means risk-free.
Postponing to later in the year or beyond
This is the most obvious solution, but with rugby’s jam-packed calendar, it is also the most problematic. There is no other six-week window in rugby’s calendar – this year or next – that could accommodate the tour. There are autumn internationals planned for 2021, and surely no cash-strapped home union would be happy to forego these Tests in place of a Lions tour.
When you add in player-welfare concerns, as well as the jumbled-up nature of the global calendar, any postponement would open Pandora’s Box.
Postponing to 2022 would incur the wrath of the national coaches and unions who, one year out from a World Cup, will be fine-tuning their squads and strategies. A Lions tour always has a severe knock-on effect on the players’ form and fitness in the subsequent season, too. It is a risk which the home unions will surely not be willing to take.
Ireland have already confirmed a three-Test tour of New Zealand for the summer of 2022, too; one can only imagine Andy Farrell’s response to any mooted suggestion that he might have to take on the All Blacks without his Lions stars.