Skip to main content

Risky business

Owain Jones

So now we know. After months of speculation, the British & Irish Lions tour is set to revert to Plan A and stay in South Africa. Finally, organisers say, there are concrete plans but, owing to Covid-19’s unpredictability, you must surmise that concrete has not quite set. Until late last week, organisers were full bore into exhaustive contingency plans to host the quadrennially-held tour in the UK, but the costs and planning of such a mammoth sporting event so late in the day defeated them. As Bill Sweeney, the RFU’s chief executive commented, they had “run out of runway”.

It had been a remarkable few months for the fabled tourists. Firm invites came from Australia, with Hamish McClennan, Rugby Australia’s chief executive, somewhat opportunistically offering to host the tour – with crowds – Down Under, much to the chagrin of Springbok fans who had waited 12 years for the golden goose to come back to the Rainbow Nation after its epic, if brutal 2009 series. This offer was politely declined by the board.

There were even tentative talks with the UAE over hosting the tour in the desert in stifling temperatures but that idea was literally built on sand and dismissed out of hand.

It was serious rhetoric without a hint of fun from man known as The Fun Bus.

For weeks, the smart money had been on the UK, with the country’s vaccine campaign gathering pace, and the thought of seeing rugby fans finally back in stadiums was enough to whet the appetite. We even had speculative home-based fixture lists doing the rounds in WhatsApp groups, but these turned out to be red herrings.

Late yesterday afternoon, after feverish news reports throughout the day, white smoke appeared from both boards, with a joint statement. “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,” said Jason Leonard, chairman of the British & Irish Lions. 

It was serious rhetoric without a hint of fun from man known as ‘The Fun Bus’.

Jamie Roberts
Jamie Roberts takes the ball into contact during the brutal second Test (Photo by David Davies via Getty Images)

He continued: “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.”

Mark Alexander, SARU’s chief executive, struck a similarly sombre tone: “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 hope must be that given the Six Nations put on such a nail-biting competition without a supporter in sight, the Lions series can deliver massive TV audiences to Sky Sports and SuperSport, with the action beamed around the globe to lascivious fans.

You don’t need to be Hercule Poirot to deduce organisers are pressing on with a wing and a prayer. An element of luck will be needed for the tour to take place in its entirety. 

The hope, therefore, must be that given the Six Nations put on such a nail-biting competition without a supporter in sight, the Lions series can deliver massive TV audiences to Sky Sports and SuperSport, with the action beamed around the globe to lascivious fans.

The alternative option was stark. No tour until 2025. Something that would be unbearable to all parties. Nudging the tour on to 2022 was held up by the uninitiated as a trouble-free solution but, for those with skin in the game, it was never viable. All four home nations had lucrative southern-hemisphere tours planned and, with a World Cup 15 months away, there was little appetite to put players through the most unrelenting tour of all and stymie tournament planning.

Lions fans
The likely absence of Lions fans will be keenly felt in South Africa (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

While traditionalists held out for some sort of tour to foreign climes, more pragmatic rugby watchers had come to accept a tour in the UK had its benefits. For rugby fans who could never envisage being able to afford to travel to South Africa, Australia or New Zealand, there may have been the option to watch their heroes in the flesh and at a time when rugby in the UK needs all the help it can get to win over hearts and minds. That benefit was not inconsiderable. Alas, with no firm guarantee on crowd numbers, hugely expensive stadiums to book and a government that had not yet come forward to underwrite the tour, it couldn’t get over the line. 

For now, the only chance for Lions fans on enforced staycations will be in Edinburgh as the touring side take on Japan, with crowd numbers as yet unsure.

There has to be sympathy for the 30,000-plus Lions supporters who had scrimped and saved for years to book the trip and will now anxiously await news from beleaguered tour operators who have seen best-laid business plans evaporating into thin air.

The only hope is that South Africa can somehow fashion a tour that manages to put a few socially-distanced fans in stadiums so it’s not only replacement benches that TV audiences can hear shouting encouragement.

There has to be sympathy, too, for the 30,000-plus Lions supporters who had scrimped and saved for years to book the trip and will now anxiously await news from beleaguered tour operators who have seen best-laid business plans evaporating into thin air.

Johnny Sexton and Alun Wyn Jones
Johnny Sexton and Alun Wyn Jones will be keen to play the Lions series this summer (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

For the players, it’s a case of same again. After spending the best part of seven weeks in a bio-secure bubble during the Six Nations, something England’s Ellis Genge described as, ‘horrible’, the selected few will hunker down at bases all over the country, unable to press the flesh in deprived townships and put smiles on faces of people who have had precious little cheer in the last 12 months. Indeed there have been over 55,000 registered deaths in South Africa and the situation remains grave. 

For now, it will be a question of sitting tight, most likely in the recovery position, and praying the many roadblocks that threaten the tour can be adroitly navigated as we count down the days to departure.

Playing-wise, there will surely be relief at the go-ahead from squad members advancing in age. As home nations captains, Johnny Sexton and Alun Wyn Jones, in particular, would have been canvassed for their views. The Ireland skipper turns 36 during the tour, while the Welsh titan hits the same milestone months later. Another year would have raised odds on their participation markedly. Even Owen Farrell, who turns 30 in September has, for the first time in years, had his form questioned, and must be privately satisfied that he is going to be a likely tourist this summer. In-form players must also be desperate to maintain momentum, knowing form and fitness cannot be relied upon.

For now, it will be a question of sitting tight, most likely in the recovery position, and praying the many roadblocks that threaten the tour can be adroitly navigated as we count down the days to departure. Before that, there is business to attend to. Constant dialogue with governments, sponsors to satisfy, coaching announcements, a squad unveiling – likely in early to mid-May – and for the rest, the fun of picking potential Lions squads. 

Certainty is not a commodity fans can cling on to right now. Hope is all we’ve got.

More stories from Owain Jones

If you’ve enjoyed this article, please share it with friends or on social media. We rely solely on new subscribers to fund high-quality journalism and appreciate you sharing this so we can continue to grow, produce more quality content and support our writers.