CAPE TOWN - The world champion Springboks must play the British & Irish Lions in 2021 or wait until 2033 to face the famed men in red.
A postponement of the Lions eight-match tour of South Africa until July 2022, is an impossibility because of World Rugby’s 10-year calendar that simply cannot accommodate the tour at the expense of as many as 11 national federations' commitments and several other club competition structures.
The hyped Lions tour of South Africa, in its original guise, will not take place in 2021. Covid’s second wave, the threat of a third wave and the uncertainty about when South Africans will benefit from mass Covid vaccinations have crushed all aspirations of the Lions being the biggest sporting event in South Africa since FIFA’s 2010 Soccer World Cup.
The world is a very different place a decade on from that fabulous sporting occasion, in which all of South Africa combined with visitors from all across the globe to celebrate soccer’s biggest occasion.
There has been such anticipation in relation to the British & Irish Lions. So much work has gone into making it the most memorable and lucrative extravaganza this country has ever seen when it comes to rugby.
Ticket sales for the three-Test series were oversubscribed, with the second Test at Cape Town’s Stadium, oversubscribed by 500 percent. South Africans, so desperate to see their 2019 World Cup winners and world champions play the best of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, had no hesitation in committing to ticket
purchases for the biggest Test matches outside of a World Cup final.
It is a tour, in which 40 000 travelling Lions supporters, would have painted South Africa red for the month of July and into the first week of August. The tourism industry in South Africa was in a state of delight two years ago. The country’s leadership was equally enthusiastic because of the economic injection from a Lions visit to South Africa that happens only once every 12 years.
This was always going to be the tour that retained the best of amateur traditions and married it to the financial and commercial realities of professional sport. It was a tour about ensuring the future of the Lions, through commercial sustainability, and also adding to SA Rugby’s financial stability over the next decade. Then Covid struck.
First prize has always been the miracle of the Lions playing in South Africa to packed stadiums this year from July 3rd to August 7th.
That first prize is no longer tangible.
South Africa, as a country, won’t be in a position to guarantee the health of the 300 000 plus buyers of tickets and the hundreds of thousands who would keep the daily party going for six weeks.
Playing the eight matches in empty stadiums in South Africa is not an option. It would be commercial suicide.
And right now, there is no certainty about whether South Africa, as a country, would be able to host any sporting event with even a hint of a spectator experience.
South Africa, as a country, is the biggest loser when it comes to the
Lions and Covid, but SA Rugby can still emerge commercially victorious if the Springboks play the Lions in a Test series away from South Africa.
The commercial reality is the Springboks need to play after the Covid-enforced cancellation of 13 Test matches in 2020, and the leadership of SA Rugby has a responsibility to the game in this country to find a commercial solution.
That solution is a flip tour, which means breaking with tradition and creating a different kind of history. That solution means taking the Springboks to the United Kingdom and Ireland to play the British & Irish Lions.
These are out-of-the-ordinary times that demand out-of-the-ordinary thinking and decision-making.
The rugby romantic in me would plead for the Lions to visit in 2022, but the realist knows the complexities that would crush such a request.
A year’s postponement would have damning financial ramifications for England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and France because of the existing World Rugby calendar that runs until 2030.
A further complication is Pro Rugby, Premiership, Top 14 and the respective European competitions.
Unpacking the knock-on effect of a postponement doesn’t make for a pretty picture. It would only add further financial crippling to the current situation.
World Rugby’s members aren’t divided on the Springboks and Lions. There is no malice in not supporting a 2022 postponement. The game’s custodians remain united in the financial fight for survival, individually and as a collective.
The problem is obvious and the solution, while unpopular to the rugby traditionalist, would seem as obvious – take the world champion Springboks north in July, August and September and create a different kind of geographic history – one in which the sporting world actually gets to see the Springboks play the British & Irish Lions.
There has to be an appreciation of the situation, which is of no-one in rugby’s making.
The Lions are a team that for more than a century have toured, which doesn’t mean they won’t tour again to Australia in 2025 and New Zealand in 2029. For now, in a Covid unvaccinated South Africa, a 2021 tour is impossible.
But the Springboks going to the United Kingdom and Ireland in the latter part of 2021 is still very possible.
SA Rugby and the Lions leadership have to make the Springboks versus Lions happen, in whatever untraditional guise, and I’d rather remember the world champions’ results against the Lions in 2021 prefaced with an asterisk than have nothing to remember because the matches never happened.