Warren Gatland hopeful that Lions itinerary will be finalised this week
Head coach will understand if some players turn down invite to tour South Africa
Ellis Park in Johannesburg is due to host the third Test between South Africa and the Lions on August 7th. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Plans to have the Lions squad based exclusively in Johannesburg have been modified so as to incorporate a middle leg of three matches, perhaps including the first Test, in Cape Town before returning to Johannesburg for the final two Tests.
The board of the British & Irish Lions and the South African Rugby Union hope to announce plans for this summer’s tour by Friday.
“We’re hoping that the schedule is finalised this week and from what I’ve seen there were a couple of options,” said Warren Gatland after unveiling his coaching ticket on Tuesday.
“One option was one bubble at altitude and based in Johannesburg and playing the matches there or in Pretoria. It looks like, if it does get finalised, that they could be flying us in to Johannesburg for the first couple of games and then going down to Cape Town for three games and potentially the first Test, and then back up to Johannesburg for the second and third Tests.
“But I’m still waiting for the Lions to finalise those details, who the opposition will be and where the matches will be. I think that’s the likelihood of what’s going to happen at the moment.”
Gatland also admitted that “the biggest loss for us is possibly that sea of red and the fans. I don’t think people realise how important that is to the players.”
However, there seems little chance of fans travelling and there remains a host of logistical problems in ensuring the tour does go ahead.
Experts have warned that South Africa, where there have been over 1.5 million confirmed cases and over 53,000 deaths due to Covid-19, is heading towards a third wave with no concrete vaccine roll-out plan and some way off its target of vaccinating healthcare workers.
The South African variant is already the dominant one in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa, which is on the UK’s “red list” of countries, from which entry to the UK is banned.
South Africa is also on the Irish Government’s Category B list, in which people returning from that country must undergo a mandatory hotel quarantine of two weeks.
“We are going to have to make sure that we’re definitely putting things in place in terms of the protocols and the bubble that we are in,” said Gatland.
“We are hoping that before we go on tour there is a possibility that everyone in the touring party is vaccinated and we are working towards potentially getting that in place. We feel that will be important.
“The health of the players in the squad is obviously at the forefront of our minds. We have a good medical team who is putting all those plans in place. Like everyone else, I will be doing my bit to make sure we have a safe and secure environment.”
The Lions head coach also admitted that some players among the 50-odd who will be contacted as to their availability might opt out of the tour.
“That’s a huge possibility – it’s something we’ve already spoken about when we had our first selection meeting yesterday. It’s going to be a real challenge for us.
“I fully understand if players maybe don’t put their hand up to tour so we want to sound them out before we do finally select the squad – the last thing I want to do is pick a squad and then have half a dozen players pull out.
“But I wouldn’t hold it against any player and I’d understand their personal situation of being away from home, family and the challenges that’s going to bring. We’ve got to be flexible and innovative. We’ve got to make sure the players’ welfare is paramount for us to get things right and hopefully have a successful tour.”
Original 2021 tour schedule
Sat, Jul 3rd: v DHL Stormers Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Wed, Jul 7th: v South Africa Invitational, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Sat, Jul 10th: v Cell C Sharks Jonsson Kings Park, Durban
Wed, Jul 14th: v South Africa A, Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
Sat, Jul 17th: v Vodacom Bulls, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Sat, Jul 24th: First Test, FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
Sat, Jul 31st: Second Test, Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Sat, Aug 7th: Third Test, Ellis Park, Johannesburg