Lions tour in disarray as they face Sharks amid worsening Covid crisis

Bulls match cancelled as infection numbers continue to rise in South Africa

Conor Murray takes a kick during Lions training ahead of the clash with Cell C Sharks in Johannesburg. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Conor Murray takes a kick during Lions training ahead of the clash with Cell C Sharks in Johannesburg. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

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Cell C Sharks v British & Irish Lions

Kick-off: 6pm, Wednesday. Venue: Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 5.30pm. On TV: Live on SkySports Main Event and Sky Sports Rugby.

Beyond their second match on South Africa soil against the Sharks this evening, nothing is certain about the remainder of the British & Irish Lions tour.

Covid-19 having hit the Bulls, Springboks and Georgians in significant numbers, all three squads are in isolation and have suspended training, with the Bulls game against the tourists in Pretoria on Saturday called off and the world champions’ second Test against Georgia on Friday in Johannesburg likely to follow.

SA Rugby and the Lions, along with the Medical Advisory Group comprising medical officers from both South Africa and the Lions and the respective chief executives, are exploring finding alternative opponents for the Lions on Saturday or rescheduling the Bulls game.

The latter seems a likelier eventuality and, given the absence of midweek games in the weeks of the first and second Test, could be re-fixed for Tuesday July 20th or a week later.

Next Saturday’s game was to have been the last in the first leg of the tour in the Gauteng province, where there are almost 150,000 active coronavirus cases as the Delta variant continues to spread rapidly among the local population.

The Lions are due to move to Cape Town on Sunday for the final warm-up games against South Africa A and the Stormers as well as the first Test. It could be that they will remain there, with the Bulls match relocated to Cape Town along with the second and third Tests.

The Cape Town region has not been afflicted as badly as the Gauteng region so far, although medical experts have warned that it could be the next epicentre of the delta variant.

Four Bulls players and one member of management returned positive tests on Monday, as have four members of the Georgian squad, while there have been the same number in the Springboks’ camp, Marvin Orie, Frans Steyn, Handre Pollard and Frans Malherbe, plus six among their management, including head coach Jacques Nienaber, and one masseuse.

A statement by SA Rugby said: “The latest medical data from the Springbok and Georgian teams will be assessed by the Medical Advisory Group (MAG) on Wednesday morning.” However, it seems utterly improbable that this game will go ahead as scheduled.

As the scale of the pandemic in South African worsens and continues to infiltrate home-based squads, SA Rugby, the Lions’ management and the MAG face an increasingly problematic task in ensuring the tour is completed. They will do so amid increasing questions as to why the tour wasn’t moved to the UK or postponed.

The Lions were already looking at a number of contingency options in the event of the Bulls game being called off, be it finding alternative opponents or ramping up training on Friday before having a day off on Saturday.

So the show goes on, for the time being anyway.

Not many of the players have international experience and they must go into this game well prepared and understand what is coming their way

The Sharks should be tougher opponents than the Sigma Lions, who they beat twice in the Rainbow Cup by 34-26 and 33-21. But akin to 12 years ago, the Sharks will be without nine players who have been called into the Springboks squad, namely backs Lukhanyo Am, Aphelele Fassi, Makazole Mapimpi, Sibusiso Nkosi, Sanele Nohamba and Yaw Penxe as well as Boks’ captain Siya Kolisi, Ox Nche and Thomas du Toit up front.

Outhalf Curwin Bosch, who has been capped twice, missed out to Handre Pollard, Elton Jantjies and Morne Steyn. He will be partnered by Jaden Hendrikse, a highly thought of scrumhalf. Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira has described replacement prop Ntuthuko Mchunu as a “potential great”.

But coach Sean Everitt has admitted: “This is a big challenge. Not many of the players have international experience and they must go into this game well prepared and understand what is coming their way.

“We have only played two domestic games recently, but our group has been together for some time and are looking forward to the challenge. We must get the fundamentals right.”

The Lions have won all eight of their previous tour matches against the Sharks and when facing them a dozen years ago it was their fourth match and they were already hitting their straps. The hosts were competitive until half-time, after which the Lions pulled away with tries by Mike Phillips, Luke Fitzgerald (when set up by Brian O’Driscoll), Lee Byrne and Jamie Heaslip to seal a 39-3 win.

Much as the home players will again be fired up for the game of a lifetime, the Iain Henderson-led side looks to have a good mix of power and dynamism up front, especially in a mobile looking backrow, as well as potency in their backline.

The contrasting quality of the two benches should also make a significant difference in the final 20 or 30 minutes.

Cell C Sharks: Manie Libbok; Werner Kok, Jeremy Ward, Marius Louw, Thaakir Abrahams; Curwin Bosch, Jaden Hendrikse; Khwezi Mona, Fez Mbatha, Khutha Mchunu; Ruben van Heerden, Hyron Andrews; James Venter, Thembelani Bholi, Phepsi Buthelezi (captain).

Replacements: Kerron van Vuuren, Ntuthuko Mchunu, Wiehahn Herbst, JJ van der Mescht, Reniel Hugo, Dylan Richardson, Grant Williams, Anthony Volmink.

British & Irish Lions: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England), Bundee Aki (Connacht Rugby, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales); Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Iain Henderson (Ulster Rugby, Ireland, capt), Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales); Josh Navidi (Cardiff Rugby, Wales), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England).

Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland), Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland), Chris Harris (Gloucester Rugby, Scotland).

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)

Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (England), AM Jacobs (South Africa)

TMO: Stuart Berry (South Africa)

Previous meetings 2009: Sharks 3 Lions 39. 1997: Sharks 12 Lions 42. 1980: Sharks 15 Lions 21. 1974: Sharks 6 Lions 34. 1968: Sharks 5 Lions 17. 1962: Sharks 3 Lions 13. 1955: Sharks 8 Lions 11. 1938: Sharks 11 Lions 15.

Betting (Paddy Power): 12/1 Sharks, 55/1 Draw, 1/25 Lions. Handicap odds (Sharks + 25 pts) 10/11 Sharks, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Lions.

Forecast: Lions to win pulling away.

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