Lions to take on Sharks again to plug gap left by Bulls cancellation

Managing director insists decision to play series in South Africa was the correct one

The Lions will take on the Sharks again in Pretoria on Saturday. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty

Whatever about the rights or wrongs of 66,000 in attendance for the England-Denmark Euro 2020 semi-final and final, or Wimbledon returning to full capacity, the board of the British & Irish Lions and SARugby must privately wonder about the wisdom of taking their tour to South Africa.

The two bodies had made serious progress in drawing up an alternative series of matches in the UK but the Union CEOs on the Lions board were unwilling to underwrite the potential losses of €10-12 million had there been no crowds, and so opted to press ahead with a revised tour to South Africa where the vaccine roll-out has barely covered 2 per cent of the population and the stadia are empty.

To the backdrop of an ever worsening third wave of the pandemic, with daily cases averaging 21,000 and the death toll numbering 450 in one day this week, Covid-19 has infiltrated the Lions, Bulls, South African and Georgian squad.

Friday’s Boks-Georgia game has been cancelled, so too Saturday’s Bulls-Lions game (albeit the Sharks will fill the void) and there must be serious doubts about the South African ‘A’ side being able to fulfill their proposed meeting with the Lions next Wednesday in Cape Town.


Yet the Lions managing director Ben Calveley has steadfastly maintained that the decision to play the eight-match tour in South Africa was the right one.

“We made the decision back in March that we would make this tour work in South Africa, which I believe to be the right decision. We are determined to make it work and there are absolutely no plans for us to deviate from that agreed strategy.”

The option to relocate the Springboks and Lions to the UK is not a viable one at this juncture.

“It’s certainly not as simple as just hopping on a flight and playing the series out on British soil. We’re very much here taking things one step at a time, dealing with the challenges as they arise, making decisions one day at a time.”

So the show goes on, with the Sharks agreeing to play the Lions again at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday (kick-off 5pm Irish time, live on Sky Sports) three days after their 54-7 beating in Johannesburg.

The chances of that game going ahead appear strong after Calveley revealed that the Lions player who had a low-level single gene positive yesterday (Wednesday) has since tested negative, and pending another negative PCR test will be able to play against the Sharks, along with the other players deemed to be close contacts who were placed in isolation.

However, the member of Lions management who tested positive on Wednesday has returned another positive result on Thursday, and so he and four close contacts, including two players, will remain in isolation for a period still to be determined by the series Medical Advisory Group (MAG).

Calveley repeated his revelation that “the vast majority of the tour party have been double jabbed”, while declining to confirm or deny whether some of the party had even had one vaccine dose, even though having the entire, near 80-strong party fully vaccinated would have seemed like an absolute priority.

He declined to say whether this included all of the 38 players or not, or reveal the reasons why everyone who travelled to South Africa had not been fully vaccinated, although seemed to intimate that it may have been out of personal choice.

“I think everyone has a right to make their own decision on whether or not they want to be vaccinated. We have a number of strategies in place to mitigate the risk in any environment.

“I think it’s wrong for anyone to think that vaccination is some sort of universal panacea. I’m afraid it’s not. So we have an approach which is multi-layered where, as well as having a majority of the party being vaccinated, we are also exhibiting all of the right behaviours that I’ve spoken about before.

“We’re getting tested three times a week if not more, we’re socially distancing, we’re well ventilated, we’re observing hand hygiene, we’re wearing masks, we’re not integrating with the public, and we’re travelling very infrequently.”

In addition, he said the limited number of hotel staff live on site.

“Actually our bubble is about as secure as it can be,” he maintained although wouldn’t confirm or deny whether some of the party had even had one vaccine dose.

While the Lions will be able to rotate and so ensure against any player having to play three times in eight days, the Sharks may have less scope to do so for two games four days apart.

Asked whether this match was rescheduled for rugby reasons or to fulfill contractual obligations to complete the eight-game tour, Calveley said: “From a rugby point of view. We were scheduled to play a fixture on Saturday, albeit against the Bulls not the Sharks.

“We came into this country to play rugby matches, right, not to sit in bio-secure bubbles. We want to play the matches so that we can prepare the side to be ready to take on the Springboks in a Test series. That was very much the driver behind the decision to go ahead on Saturday.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times