Gerry Thornley: Looks increasingly like Lions should have gone with plan B

In March, board considered moving tour to Australia or UK, but stuck with South Africa

The British & Irish Lions squad arriving in South Africa on Monday, Louis Rees-Zammit carrying the team mascot, Bil. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The British & Irish Lions squad arriving in South Africa on Monday, Louis Rees-Zammit carrying the team mascot, Bil. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

That the British & Irish Lions tour appears to be a in a state of flux – and possibly even chaos – is not entirely surprising. When the Lions board and SA Rugby announced on March 23rd that they would resort to Plan A, and proceed with the eight-match tour in South Africa, they were always taking a gamble.

The vaccination programme in South Africa was way behind the rollout in the UK and even Ireland. Viewed in that light, the alternative proposals – ie to accept Rugby Australia’s offer to host the tour there, move the tour to the UK or postpone the tour for a year – were all preferable.

True, like every other decision regarding the hosting of sporting events, the Lions and SA Rugby boards were faced with some acutely difficult decisions, and in an ever-changing and volatile world.

The unions – and thus by extension the Lions board – were reluctant to postpone the tour for a year as it would have meant cancelling tours by the respective four international sides just over a year out from the World Cup.

Completing the tour without the financial windfall of spectators might still earn SA Rugby almost €30 million through TV and sponsorship

They had apparently drawn up a number of draft tours in the UK, with the USA, Japan, the French Barbarians, the Barbarians and South Africa “A” all being explored as potential opponents for both the Lions and the Springboks, with St James’ Park and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as additional venues to Twickenham, Murrayfield, the Principality Stadium and the Aviva Stadium.

Such a summer schedule could have provided the Lions with, potentially, up to four warm-up matches, and the Springboks with up to three, before a four-match Test series on successive Saturdays from July 17th to August 7th.

As well as hosting a midweek warm-up game between the Lions and a South Africa “A” side, the Aviva Stadium had been pencilled in as a venue for a third Test on July 31st.

However, for the Lions to host the Springboks, even after TV monies and commercial sponsorship were taken into consideration, they would have required attendances of at least 10,000 for the four home unions to break even.

The Lions board features one nominated director per country as well as the four CEOs of the unions, and the decision to proceed with the tour in South Africa was born out of a reluctance to underwrite the potential losses of €10-€12 million which the unions would have incurred had no spectators been admitted to the venues.

At the time, the Irish Government was in no position to guarantee the presence of spectators at sporting events, while it was still possible that the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, and her counterpart in Wales, Mark Drakeford, would not sanction supporters being able to attend games in Murrayfield and the Principality Stadium.

Roadmap

Even so, the UK government had already begun to outline a roadmap for the return of supporters to some sporting events from June onwards in England. By comparison, the South African government were in no position to outline roadmaps for the return of supporters, and any chance of that happening by July was always fanciful in the extreme.

Completing the tour without the financial windfall of spectators might still earn SA Rugby almost €30 million, according to sources in South Africa, through TV and sponsorship.

When the notion of bringing the tour to the UK (or moving it to Australia) was first mooted, there was opposition from traditionalists against either option, as there has also been regarding a tour to South Africa without fans.

The optics of this tour going ahead are awful even if it could be argued that a Lions tour will provide some semblance of normality and a distraction for South African people

But while much of what makes Lions tours are to be cherished, no sport should ever be hostage to tradition, least of all in these times.

Even if all eight matches go ahead in South Africa, they will do so in empty stadia and to the backdrop of a third wave hitting South Africa which medical experts forewarn could be catastrophic.

A harrowing report in South Africa’s News24 stated that as the Gauteng provinces grapples with the third wave of Covid-19, hospitals are so overwhelmed that medical personnel are now effectively choosing who to try to save.

One anonymous doctor was quoted as saying: “This is not a wave; this is a tsunami. Reversing this runaway train is going to be almost impossible. We don’t have the capacity or resources.”

From this remove, the optics of this tour going ahead to that backdrop are awful even if it could be argued that a Lions tour will provide some semblance of normality and a distraction for South African people, as sport has been on this side of the world for the last 10 months or so. But in all of this the Lions players, coaches and back-up staff have been placed in a difficult and invidious position.

After 10 months of hollow stadia hosting sport, and then recent attendances at other events, whether partially full, half full or at capacity, Euro 2020 has forcibly reminded us that live sport was meant to be watched and supported by real live people. It has even revived what must be many exhausted players after such a trying year.

Escapology

Meanwhile, Twickenham was able to accommodate up to 10,000 fans for the European finals over a month ago, as was the case for Harlequins’ latest act of escapology when beating Bristol in last Saturday’s final. And there was an attendance of 16,500 at Murrayfield last Saturday for the Lions’ pre-tour game against Japan.

By comparison, the Euros appear to have been given preferential treatment, what with Wembley allowed a crowd of 19,000 for England’s group game with the Czech Republic, and the 90,000-capacity stadium to host 60,000 for the Euro semi-finals and final after UK government approval.

Thee British & Irish Lions’ gear being sanitised upon arrival in South Africa on Monday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Thee British & Irish Lions’ gear being sanitised upon arrival in South Africa on Monday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Even so, subject to government guidance, the RFU is optimistic of being allowed to admit 41,000 supporters for England’s matches at Twickenham against the USA and Canada on July 4th and 10th.

By comparison, the 3,000 permitted at the Aviva next Saturday for the Ireland-Japan game, with 6,000 for the USA game on Saturday week, is a much smaller percentage, but the point being that shifting the Lions tour to this part of the world would have at least seen the games take place to the backdrop of supporters.

Even on March 23rd, the Rugby Australia (RA) chief executive Andy Marinos admitted that the Lions announcement “took me by surprise a little bit”.

Not being wise after the event, but this was a chance missed. Shifting the tour to this part of the world looked a better option at the time of the final decision, and looks an even better one now.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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