Matt Williams: Lions spin can’t simply gloss over Covid reality in South Africa

Questions must be asked over the validity and morality of this tour

Funerals taking place  at the Olifantsvlei Cemetery in Soweto, Johannesburg. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Funerals taking place at the Olifantsvlei Cemetery in Soweto, Johannesburg. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

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The behemoth that is the 2021 British and Irish Lions social media marketing conglomeration is churning out shallow ‘goody two shoes’ stories at a frequency so great, that even The Donald would be impressed.

The Lions social media set every speech ever uttered by a Lion as a Churchillian masterpiece. Every player that has ever pulled on the Lions jersey is a Marvel superhero. Each individual Lion is more devoted to the group than the Magnificent Seven, the Dirty Dozen or that great pack of eight that was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

According to their social media, the Lions simply love each other to pieces.

“I love you man.”

“I love you too darling, just don’t miss a tackle, or our Lions dream will crumble, like your mum’s rhubarb and apple pie.”

“You can count on me my sweet cheeks. I will give you my all at the next scrum.”

“I know I can count on you. Baby, I am so lucky to have you by my side.”

“I will be there for you until the end of time.”

Quick. Pass me a bucket. I am going to chunder.

Where is the great Willie John McBride’s “99” call when we need it? Someone phone Jimmy Telfer. The Lions need some good old internal fighting to snap themselves out of this stupor.

Come on, Lions marketing team! Give us the truth. Not the sugar-coated version.

Why not an Instagram post of the greatest dickheads ever to tour with the Lions? I am told they would make a powerful team with a full bench and several surprise selections.

Or Lions who punched a team-mate because, “I never like the b***ard in the first place because he kicked me in the head at Twickenham”. What about the Lions who were not picked in the Test team so simply got on the turps for a month?

Those stories do exist and many are exceptionally funny, but they just do not fit the Knights of the Round table image being manipulated by the Lions spin doctors.

So what is the spin trying to hide and why is there no mention of South Africa?

The fact that the pandemic has re-emerged in South Africa and triggered another wave of human tragedy is not something the Lions spin merchants want us to discuss. It is only when you depart from the social media marketing and talk to journalists and former players in South Africa, as I did this week, and listen to their voices that you get an insight into the harsh truths of this Lions tour.

South Africa is officially in the grip of a third wave of the local variant as the pandemic again ravages the country. The South African roll-out out of their vaccination process is the slowest on the African continent. As of last Thursday only 1.08 per cent of the South African population was fully vaccinated. As the contagion has spread, the hospitals have reached the point of overflowing and the critical shortage of beds is contributing to an average of 1,400 deaths a week in June.

Those are the official numbers. In the townships, where tens of millions of black South Africans live, there are many more deaths from Covid that go unrecorded. I have coached in different townships on several occasions. To see the deplorable conditions the inhabitants are forced to endure in their daily life is a profound experience I would like to forget but can’t.

Despite this lethal environment, the Lions bulldozer ploughs on.

With full knowledge that crowds at sporting matches are multipliers of the virus and could accelerate the misery across an unvaccinated society, SA Rugby continues to lobby the government to admit supporters to the Lions matches. The Lions administration are fully aware of SA Rugby’s actions in this perilous environment. Against every public health administrator’s advice – and with full knowledge that peoples lives are at risk – cash remains king. I can understand why the Lions do not want this shameful set of circumstances broadcast on social media.

Rugby has provided me with the privilege of touring in South Africa many times. The scenery, the game parks, the culture, the exceptionally generous hospitality of the people and the ferocity of the competition make touring South Africa one of life’s great experiences and my favourite rugby destination.

Sadly, for this group of Lions, touring life will be in a biosecurity bubble within the team hotel, training grounds and matchday stadiums. Believe me, that is not a lot of fun. There will be no sipping crisp wines in the Western Cape or braais on the Highveld.

How the Lions party of 37 players, five coaches plus support staff – vaccinated or not – can avoid contact with hotel workers, bus drivers, food servers and a myriad of other essential local staff, all of whom are possibly infected with the highly contagious local variant, is based on an act of hope but not founded in reality.

When I asked an esteemed English sports journalist why the media was not raising these points with the Lions administration, his guilt-laden reply was: “It’s a dilemma, but after everyone being confined for so long, we are all so looking forward to the games.”

No, I could not believe that answer either.

There is a long list of people complicit in not demanding answers from the Lions administration on the many unanswered questions regarding the validity and morality of this tour.

It is like witnessing rugby’s version of The Hunger Games. There is a rugby series about to be played, all explained through the prism of the Lions spin and mythology, aimed at distracting the masses from their reality . . . and of course to make money, as South Africa’s most vulnerable die by the thousands each week.

None of this should come as a surprise. When it comes to northern hemisphere rugby, money has always come before South Africa’s poorest.

Life imitates art, as the spin of the Lions Hunger Games conquers all.

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