Ireland likely to lose out on potential Lions games due to absence of crowds

Attendances of 10,000 would be required just to break even if organisers agree on shift

Lions coach Warren Gatland in the stands at Twickenham during the Six Nations game between England and France. Photograph:  Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

Lions coach Warren Gatland in the stands at Twickenham during the Six Nations game between England and France. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

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Ireland is unlikely to host any games against South Africa should it come to pass that the British and Irish Lions effectively become hosts rather than tourists this summer in a four-Test series.

Both the eight-man Lions board and the board of the South African Rugby Union will meet this week to discuss their options regarding this year’s scheduled tour of South Africa before making a decision, most probably within the next week.

All options are still on the table, be it bringing the Springboks to this part of the world, the Lions touring South Africa, postponing the tour until next year or cancelling it altogether.

In the first scenario a number of draft tours have been drawn up, 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, and St James’ Park and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as additional venues.

This would provide 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 the venue for a third Test on July 31st.

However, for the Lions to host the Springboks, even after TV monies and commercial sponsorship, they would need attendances of at least 10,000 to break even and double that to start making a profit for the four home unions.

The Lions board, which features one nominated director per country as well as the chief executives of the four unions, is reluctant to underwrite the estimated €10-12 million losses should no supporters be admitted to attend the matches.

Whereas the British government has outlined a roadmap for the return of supporters to some sporting events from June onwards, the Irish Government, and by extension the IRFU, are not in a position to ensure the presence of any kind of attendance at games next July.

It could be that this possibility has already been ruled out and, in any event, Government approval for even restricted, socially distant attendances is hardly going to come within the next week.

It could also come to pass that the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, and her counterpart in Wales, Mark Drakeford, will not give their approval for supporters to attend games in Murrayfield and the Principality Stadium.

If so, then all matches could take place at English venues should the Lions board and the SARU agree to shift the series from South Africa to the UK, thereby culminating in a four-Test series at Twickenham.

The Lions board have to make a decision sooner rather than later, not least in securing venues. In normal times the details and logistics of a tour would long since have been finalised.

The head coach Warren Gatland, who has cut a plaintive masked figure while observing social distancing at Six Nations games, would have appointed his assistant coaches before the autumnal series of matches.

They would have had a selection meeting post the November matches, prior to the Six Nations and, most likely, halfway through it, all with a mind toward finalising their squad in early April after the European round of 16 or quarter-finals.

The medical departments and the various heads of department would also have been appointed before the Six Nations. Instead, Gatland has been attending matches on his own with no decision taken as to whether a tour will go ahead, and in what guise.

Decision day is looming, but even if the Lions end up hosting a tour/series, it’s highly unlikely any of it will be taking place in Ireland.

Meanwhile, two of Ireland’s strongest Lions candidates, James Ryan and Garry Ringrose, have been ruled out of next Saturday’s final game of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations against England at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 4.45pm).

Ryan was taken off in the 70th minute of Sunday’s 27-24 win over Scotland at Murrayfield for a HIA and did not return, as was the case in the defeat by Wales in round one, and his return to play will be managed by Leinster.

Ringrose has been ruled out of the English game after sustaining an ankle injury against Scotland and will undergo further assessment by the Ireland and Leinster medical teams.

The loss of Ryan is offset by the return of Peter O’Mahony from suspension, which could mean Tadhg Beirne reverting to the secondrow where he played in the opening two games before earning successive man of the match awards at blindside.

Tom O’Toole will remain with Ulster after “picking up a knock” in training, so Connacht’s Finlay Bealham will remain with the squad having provided additional cover in Murrayfield.

Ireland squad for Six Nations clash with England

Backs
Bundee Aki (Connacht), Billy Burns (Ulster), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Craig Casey (Munster), Andrew Conway (Munster), Keith Earls (Munster), Chris Farrell (Munster), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Hugo Keenan (Leinster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster), James Lowe (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster/), Conor Murray (Munster), Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster).

Forwards
Ryan Baird (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Ed Byrne (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Will Connors (Leinster), Ultan Dillane (Connacht), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Dave Heffernan (Connacht), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Rob Herring (Ulster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster).

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