As the world continues to fight against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the British and Irish Lions 2021 tour to South Africa hangs in the balance. With a few options on the table, we look at the feasible plans and if the tour should in fact even go ahead this year.
Reports last week suggested that the tour is on the verge of being cancelled due to rising cases in South Africa but the Lions board has also been considering the possibility of hosting a UK-based tour as a contingency plan.
The South African Rugby Union hs made it clear that the tour will not be financially viable in the event of no Lions fans – around 30,000 it is estimated – at the matches. While the Lions board is said to not be overly keen on having the matches in the UK either.
So, it seems as though things are at an impasse. A Lions tour without fans is clearly not a Lions tour in anyone’s eyes. It’s not just a rugby game, it’s an experience and the partisan – and often hostile – atmosphere between both sets of supporters is something to embrace.
Without that, it’s a sad, irrelevant alternative.
Hosting the tour in the UK would also go completely against the idea of a tour for the Lions, which is probably why the board is not fully supporting the idea as a viable back-up plan.
The Lions are the tourists, not the hosts. It’s not so much a tour as an extended end-of-year Test series. And for South Africa, which has waited 12 years to face the Lions after their epic 2009 series win, deserve to recieve the Lions on their home patch.
Therefore, rather than concoct back-up plans and contingencies to move the tour away from South Africa, the only alternative to having it this summer, should COVID-19 prevent it from happening, is to host it in normal circumstances in 2022.
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Of course, the summer is still a long way away – despite plans and preparations meaning that it really isn’t that far away in reality – and things do seem to be on the mend, slowly.
A number of COVID vaccines are now in development, and in some countries, actively on the market. National lockdowns could well reduce the brutal infection and death rate in South Africa and the British Isles also.
Essentially, there needs to be two options and a (semi) firm deadline on which to make a decision. Either the tour runs in South African in front of fans this year, or it doesn’t.
During BBC 5 Live’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast, former Lions tourist Ugo Monye and journalist Chris Jones debated these topics. Jones reckoned that a tour needed to be held away from the UK.
“The whole point of a Lions tour is the band of brothers going into hostile environments away from home. The Lions tour should be done in South Africa with travelling fans or not done at all.”
Monye, who scored an interception try in the third Test match in 2009, said that the atmosphere of a Lions match in South Africa trumps any idea of holding the tour behind closed doors.
“It plays a massive factor in the success of a team. You have got 10s of thousands of fans who have probably already booked to go there. Behind closed doors, it doesn’t interest me. I wouldn’t even table it as an option.”
Like with most things in these COVID times, time will ultimately tell as to what sort of Lions tour we will see.