Lions coach Warren Gatland ‘thrilled’ with 2021 tour schedule

Tourists will play two Tests at altitude as they bit to topple world champions South Africa

Warren Gatland believes the British and Irish Lions will cope with the daunting challenge of playing two Tests at altitude when they tour South Africa in 2021. The schedule for the eight-match visit has now been confirmed with the Test series commencing in Soweto's 88,000-capacity FNB Stadium on July 24th and concluding at Ellis Park, Johannesburg on August 7th.

The second Test will be played at sea level in Cape Town with the Lions also taking on three provincial sides and South Africa A in a truncated eight-match itinerary that features only two midweek fixtures. Gatland, however, believes the Lions still have a genuine chance of overturning the world champions, who edged the last series against the Lions in 2009. “I am absolutely thrilled with how this schedule looks,” said Gatland, whose Lions beat Australia in 2013 and drew the series with New Zealand in 2017.

“Touring South Africa is always a huge challenge, not only from a rugby perspective, but also in terms of the venues and the conditions facing the players. We are very comfortable that three of the games, two of which are Test matches, will be played at altitude. Our schedule falls in a way that allows us to start at sea level before building up and acclimatising to the unique environment that playing at altitude presents.

“Ensuring the team are absolutely primed for the Test matches is a critical element of any Lions Tour, and I am confident the quality of opposition we will face in the opening weeks will get us ready to take on the Springboks. The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers are all tough sides and present different challenges, which is exactly what we want.”

The first Test could be played in front of the largest-ever crowd for a Lions Test in the professional era, with a sell-out crowd in Soweto potentially beating the 84,188 attendance for the series decider against Australia in Sydney in 2001. The combined capacity for the three Test venues is almost 205,000, which could make the 2021 series the best-attended since 192,972 people attended the Lions’ three Tests against the Wallabies in 2013. “The venues we have agreed – some of which will be new to the Lions – open up the matches to a vast audience and will undoubtedly provide an unforgettable experience for the players and travelling supporters alike,” said Gatland. “We are very much looking forward to touring this wonderful country.”

The Lions have toured South Africa on 13 previous occasions, winning four Test series, losing eight and drawing one. Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby, said it would represent a once-in-a-lifetime playing opportunity for his players. “There are players who have been to three Rugby World Cups and finished their careers with a winner’s medal yet never got to play against the Lions,” said Erasmus, predicting the visitors would be “a well-oiled machine” under Gatland. “Warren Gatland is a massively experienced and astute coach with a phenomenal record with the Lions and the rugby experience for our players and public will rival that of a Rugby World Cup.

“The Lions performed extremely well on their previous two tours [in Australia and New Zealand] and will no doubt relish the opportunity to add the Springboks’ scalp to their belt. They will operate like a well-oiled machine and we will have to work very hard to match them in every department, on and off the field. The Lions have not lost a series since they were last here a decade ago and they will present a next-level challenge in 18 months’ time.”

Ben Calveley, the Lions’ managing director, believes the tour will prove both a commercial success and find favour with travelling fans. “In partnership with SA Rugby, we have worked hard to deliver a match schedule that will provide a significant challenge for Warren and his squad, as well as showcasing the Lions and rugby union across the world.

“Lions Tours are a truly unique experience and we are expecting tens of thousands of supporters to travel to South Africa in 2021. With this schedule we’re certain that every one of them will come back with amazing memories.” - Guardian