South African government says Lions tour will go ahead

The country moved to level four lockdown measures on Sunday night

British and Irish Lions captain Conor Murray and the rest of the squad departed from Edinburgh on Sunday evening on their British Airways charter flight for Johannesburg. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

British and Irish Lions captain Conor Murray and the rest of the squad departed from Edinburgh on Sunday evening on their British Airways charter flight for Johannesburg. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

The South African government has confirmed that the British and Irish Lions tour will go ahead as scheduled despite speculation that it was in doubt after the country moved to level four lockdown measures on Sunday night.

Amid grim forecasts that the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic could reach catastrophic levels in the country, particularly in the Gauteng region where the Lions are due to play five matches at the beginning and end of their tour, president Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday night that South Africa will move to adjusted level-four restrictions as of Monday for at least two weeks.

The announcement appeared to question whether the eight-match tour would proceed as there had been no clarity on the status of sporting events in Ramaphosa’s lengthy speech, but on Monday the government confirmed that all professional sporting events are still allowed.

The Lions’ party departed from Edinburgh on Sunday evening on their British Airways charter flight for Johannesburg, arriving on Monday morning. The city is in Gauteng province, where 60 per cent of the country’s infections have occurred in the past 14 days and where more than 11,000 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in the area on Friday alone.

The Lions are due to play their first match next Saturday in Johannesburg against the Emirates Lions, whose Rainbow Cup fixture away to the Stormers in Cape Town just over two weeks ago was cancelled after a positive case of Covid-19 in their ranks.

With all other travel in and out of Gauteng prohibited, it is understood that SA Rugby and the Lions are exploring contingency plans to move matches from Gauteng to Cape Town, which is due to host three games in the middle of the tour including the first test.

The most viable alternative may be to move the remainder of the tour, including the entire three-Test series, to Cape Town.

On Sunday, news also broke that three Springboks - Herschel Jantjies, Vincent Koch and Sbu Nkosi - had tested positive for Covid-19 and that the entire squad are currently in self-isolation as a result, thereby placing their first of two warm-up games against Georgia in Pretoria this Friday in severe doubt.

All members of the Lions have received two vaccinations before departing for South Africa but it is unclear whether the Springboks’ players have completed their vaccination process yet.

Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby, stressed that the Springboks’ squad, many of whom had met for a conditioning camp earlier this month in Bloemfontein, had followed all the necessary precautions. This included mandatory Covid testing three times a week. The Springboks will seek specialist advice before coming out of isolation.

The new government measures announced on Sunday night by president Ramaphosa include a ban on alcohol for 14 days until July 11th, a ban on all gatherings indoors and outdoors except funerals, a curfew from 9pm to 4am and a ban on restaurants operating except for takeaway foods.

These developments certainly extinguish any faint hope of even a limited number of spectators being permitted to attend any of the Lions’ matches, but there are undoubtedly bigger issues at play here, and amid this apparent chaos the prospect of the tour being completed in full must remain in doubt.

That said, the government announcement that the tour will proceed follows similar assurances to the Lions. In the aftermath of Saturday’s pre-tour win over Japan, when asked, Warren Gatland said: “We have had assurances that if they do go into another lockdown, or cancel sport, that it won’t affect the Lions in terms of training, preparation and the matches.”

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