South Africa’s build-up to Lions tour hit by three positive Covid-19 tests

Opening of two warm-up games against Georgia next Friday in serious jeopardy

South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus does not believe the Lions Tests are at risk after an outbreak of Covid-19 among the Springboks. Photograph:  Johan Rynners/Gallo Images/Getty Images

South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus does not believe the Lions Tests are at risk after an outbreak of Covid-19 among the Springboks. Photograph: Johan Rynners/Gallo Images/Getty Images

 

Continuing an eventful weekend which saw the British & Irish Lions lose their captain Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric in their costly pre-tour win over Japan, South Africa’s planned warm-up game against Georgia next Friday now looks in serious jeopardy after three Springboks players tested positive for Covid-19.

As a result of the positive tests for first-choice scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, prop Vincent Koch and wing Sibu Nkosi, the entire Springboks squad has been put into isolation and Sunday’s planned training session in Johannesburg was cancelled. According to an SA Rugby statement “a decision on further team activities will be made shortly”, pending advice from the series’ Medical Advisory Group (Mag).

The statement added: “SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus emphasised that the team had followed all the necessary precautions since the start of the three-week conditioning camp hosted in Bloemfontein, which included mandatory Covid-19 testing three times a week, and that they would be led by specialist advice before any action is taken.”

The world champions, who have not played in 19 months since beating England in the World Cup final in Tokyo, are due to play the first of two warm-up games against Georgia at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria next Friday, with the second game scheduled for Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg on Friday week. But that first game now looks unlikely to take place.

Meanwhile, prior to their Sunday night charter flight to Johannesburg, the Lions management moved swiftly in light of losing Jones and Tipuric to shoulder injuries, by installing Conor Murray as captain and calling up Welsh duo Adam Beard (Ospreys) and Josh Navidi (Cardiff ).

The Exeter Chiefs quartet of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Stuart Hogg, Jonny Hill and Sam Simmonds also linked up with the rest of the 37-man touring party after Saturday’s painful 40-38 Premiership final loss to Harlequins.

Four weeks out from the first Test in Cape Town, the Lions open their tour with a game against the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg next Saturday. It is likely to be a much changed side from the all-Celtic starting XV featuring all seven remaining Irish players at Murrayfield last Saturday.

James Ryan would have been in the reckoning and was definitely sounded out by the Lions management as a replacement for Jones but it transpires that Ryan suffered a groin injury in training last Thursday.

Conor Murray in action for the Lions during Saturday’s game against Japan at Murrayfield. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Conor Murray in action for the Lions during Saturday’s game against Japan at Murrayfield. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

This in turn makes it unlikely he will be fit to captain Ireland against Japan at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday. The IRFU will provide a Monday update but with Johnny Sexton one of the senior players rested and Garry Ringrose having undergone a shoulder operation really, the most viable choice as captain is Peter O’Mahony.

The Munster flanker captained the Lions in the first Test at Eden Park four years ago before the return of Sam Warburton to the starting backrow saw O’Mahony miss out entirely on the second and third Tests.

The honour bestowed upon Murray is in desperately unfortunate circumstances for Jones. As a four-time tourist, the 35-year-old Welsh warrior is the only survivor from the 2009 tour to South Africa.

Jones led the Lions to victory in the decisive and victorious third Test in Sydney in 2013. He has been an ever-present in the last two Test series. There really is no like for like replacement.

Ken Owens assumed the captaincy on Saturday while both Owen Farrell, especially, and Maro Itoje might have seemed likelier candidates to take over from Jones. But Murray is one of only five players still standing in the squad who is on his third tour, and his anointment is proof of the esteem in which Gatland and co hold him.

“Conor is an outstanding rugby player and is held in the highest regard with both the players and coaches,” said Gatland. “As a three-time Lions tourist, he knows what will be required as captain and I am certain he will lead the squad with excellence. He will also be well supported by an experienced leadership group.”

Murray becomes only the 12th Irish player to be named the Lions tour captain, following Karl Mullen, Robin Thompson, Ronnie Dawson, Tom Kiernan, Willie John McBride, Ciarán Fitzgerald, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell since the second World War.

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