Lions relieved to leave the chaos of Gauteng province behind them

Strongly suspected the remainder of the Lions tour will now take place in Cape Town

 Louis Rees-Zammit, draped  with  Lions Mascot BIL,  and Ali Price at Wondrboom National Airport, Pretoria, for their flight to Cape Town. The squad are now based in the Western Cape for the next couple of weeks.  Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Louis Rees-Zammit, draped with Lions Mascot BIL, and Ali Price at Wondrboom National Airport, Pretoria, for their flight to Cape Town. The squad are now based in the Western Cape for the next couple of weeks. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

The British & Irish Lions arrived in Cape Town on Sunday ahead of a winter storm that battered the province within 24 hours, but the disruptive weather hardly compares to the turmoil they left behind in Johannesburg.

The northern hemisphere tourists are staying at the Arabella resort in Hermanus, about 90 minutes from the Western Cape capital, but their first full day in the province saw heavy rain, high winds and even some snowfall.

But Gauteng province, their base for the first two weeks of the tour, remains the epicentre of the pandemic in South Africa, so a little adverse weather is unlikely to dampen the relief they must feel from leaving that chaos behind them.

In addition, South Africa’s economic heartland was hit by a wave of violent political protests over the weekend linked to the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma last Wednesday, who was found in contempt of court in late June.

The protests started in KwaZulu-Natal – Zuma’s home province – on Friday but quickly spread to Johannesburg, Gauteng’s largest city, a day later, leaving a number of high-density suburbs facing riots and looting.

In a bid to keep the Lions’ players safe, hotel staff at the Arabella have been living in a bio security bubble on site prior to their arrival

The Western Cape, where the Lions are based for the next couple of weeks at least, is unlikely to experience similar outbreaks of political unrest, as Zuma has little support in the province, which is run by South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.

In addition, the Lions will also be hoping the Covid-related disruptions they have experienced so far will be kept to a minimum going forward given the Western Cape currently has a much lower infection rate than Gauteng.

Lions coach Warren Gatland has already revealed some of the challenges the tourists have faced since they checked into their Johannesburg accommodation in late June.

“We arrived at the hotel on the first day and 12 of the staff had tested positive [for Covid-19] and then a couple of days later another five and then another two and then another one,” he told reporters on Saturday.

In a bid to keep the Lions’ players safe, hotel staff at the Arabella have been living in a bio security bubble on site prior to their arrival. The resort’s employees will also undergo regular Covid-19 testing for the duration of the tourists’ stay.

Third wave

On Monday the national department of health confirmed that Gauteng remains by far the hardest hit of South Africa’s nine provinces, which are all seeing a third wave of Covid-19 spread rapidly through their populations.

WASHED OUT: Paul (Bobby) Stridgeon slides in a puddle during British & Irish Lions squad training in Cape Town, South Africa, after a storm had passed through. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Paul (Bobby) Stridgeon slides in a puddle during British & Irish Lions squad training in Cape Town, South Africa, after a storm had passed through. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Official statistics show Gauteng accounted for 52 per cent of the 16,302 new infections recorded in the previous 24 hours, while the Western Cape accounted for just 12 per cent, albeit the second worst-affected province. The Cape’s authorities say they are now dealing with over 26,000 active cases.

A growing sentiment among local rugby fans is that the Lions will be far better prepared for the Tests than the Springboks

On Sunday night president Cyril Ramaphosa told his fellow South Africans they would remain under strict restrictions until at least July 25th, the day after the Lions take on the Springboks in Cape Town in the first Test match.

These include a ban on alcohol sales, a curfew between 9pm and 4am, and severe limitations on public gatherings.

However, the Lions tour remains on-track to continue for the time being at least, as professional sport has not been affected by the additional restrictions his government introduced.

The Lions take on a South Africa A side on Wednesday and the following Saturday they play the Stormers, the professional rugby team based in the Cape. It has yet to report any positive Covid-19 test results among its squad and management, which has been in isolation since last Thursday.

Indeed, it is strongly suspected that the remainder to the Lions tour will take place in Cape Town – two of the three Tests were due to take place back in Gauteng – although this has yet to be officially confirmed.

A growing sentiment among local rugby fans is that the Lions will be far better prepared for the Tests than the Springboks, as the world champions’ preparations have suffered more from Covid-19 outbreaks than their opponents.

The Boks, who have played little rugby since winning the World Cup in 2019, have already lost a week of training due to infections in their ranks, and a rematch against Georgia was also cancelled.

The Lions, on the other hand, have managed to keep their training going for the most part, and have been playing regular matches since arriving in country despite their Covid-19 setbacks.

Playing the final two Tests in Cape Town – which now seems likely – is also seen as a positive development for the tourists, as it robs the hosts of the advantage of playing them at altitude, which is seen as an advantage to the home side.

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