Gerry Thornley: Financial concerns mean it’s South Africa or bust for Lions tour

There remains a distinct possibility of the tour being cancelled due to Covid-19 pandemic

A reluctance to underwrite the financial losses of a ‘tour’ to the UK going ahead without supporters was at the heart of the decision by the British & Irish Lions board to recommit to the scheduled series in South Africa this summer.

In reaffirming their “preference” is for the tour to proceed in South Africa as scheduled, all the Lions board have done is effectively rule out the option of a tour or series taking place in the UK. Basically, now it’s South Africa or bust.

There remains a distinct possibility of the tour being cancelled, due to the innumerable difficulties in countering the ever-changing Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing financial implications should the matches take place behind closed doors.

This much was acknowledged by both parties after their joint statement on Tuesday in which the Lions’ board “confirmed its preference to SA Rugby on Monday evening”.


"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," said Jason Leonard, chairman of the Lions. "SA Rugby will have our full support to help implement this plan."

Mark Alexander, president of the SA Rugby, said they "shared the Lions' desire to see a safe and successful tour" and to that end had been in regular contact with the South African government.

The sports ministry has asked the National Olympic Committee in South Africa to submit one application on behalf of all sports seeking the return of supporters, but this could be a slow process, and there is no indication as yet that Lions supporters will be permitted to travel to South Africa in July and August.

In the event that spectators are not permitted to gain access to the Test matches, Lions supporters who had successfully purchased Test match tickets via the Lions ticket ballot will be refunded.

While a tour to South Africa would protect its existing contract with title sponsors Castle Lager and is seen as having less risk financially, Alexander also admitted: “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.”

Alexander also said the original eight-match tour schedule – to begin with a match between the Stormers and the Lions in Cape Town on Saturday, July 3rd and culminating in a third Test between the Springboks and the Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday, August 7th – was subject to review because of all these considerations.

Even so, as things stand the Lions’ Test match against Japan at Murrayfield on Saturday, June 26th is set to go ahead.

It was due to the greater likelihood of supporters being admitted at matches in this part of the world – to at least some capacity than seems likely to be the case in South Africa this summer – that the Lions board had strongly explored the viability of moving the tour to the UK. This was in light of the British government’s roadmap which incorporated the phased return of supporters to sports events in England.

At least half a dozen various tour itineraries were drawn up, featuring Japan, the USA, Barbarians and French Barbarians as warm-up opposition, and culminating in a four-Test series in Murrayfield, the Principality Stadium, the Aviva Stadium and Twickenhan.

However, this was on the premise of potentially 50 per cent, or at least 20 per cent, spectator capacity at grounds, but there was little likelihood of this being approved by the Irish Government, or for that matter the Scottish and Welsh parliaments.

A tour to the UK without supporters could have incurred losses in excess of €10-12million. With no government willing to underwrite the cost of the tour, the eight-man Lions board, which is comprised of the four chief executives from each of the unions as well as one nominee apiece, were reluctant to risk incurring that financial loss.

So it is that moving the tour to the UK has, akin to the offer from the Australian Union to host the tour there this summer, been ruled out after all.

Postponing the Lions tour until next year has also been rejected on the premise that the four respective unions have already planned tours by their national sides for the summer of 2022 – an example being Ireland’s three-Test tour to New Zealand – and cancelling/postponing them, or diluting them without Lions players, would be seen as affecting the four countries’ build-up to the 2023 World Cup.

This leaves the Lions’ 2021 tour to South Africa open to two eventualities, namely that it does go ahead as scheduled this summer, or that it has to be cancelled for four years.

If it comes to the latter, not only would an eight-year gap between Lions tours seriously damage the brand and the 12-year cycles for the host countries, it could open up a whole new hornet’s nest.

After all, in that scenario, the South African rugby board would want the tour to take place in their country in 2025 rather than miss out altogether but it remains to be seen if the Australian and New Zealand rugby unions would be of a mind to suspend the financial windfall of a Lions tour back by four years in turn.

Relations are already frayed as it is between the southern hemisphere big three after the South African franchises broke away from the Super Rugby competition.

Lions tour 2021 proposed fixture list

Pre-tour warm-up game

Sat, June 26th : v Japan, Edinburgh

Tour warm-up games:

Sat, July 3rd: v Stormers, Cape Town Stadium

Wed, July 7th: v South Africa Invitational, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth

Sat, July 10th: v Sharks , Jonsson Kings Park, Durban

Wed, July 14th: v South Africa A, Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit

Sat, July 17th: v Bulls, Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria

Test matches

Sat, July 24th: v South Africa, FNB Stadium, Johannesburg

Sat, July 31st: v South Africa, Cape Town Stadium

Sat, August 7th: v South Africa, Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg)