The British & Irish Lions in South Africa in 2021 will be an eight-event rugby extravaganza and carnival. It will be the biggest sporting event in South Africa since Fifa’s 2010 Soccer World Cup and it will also be a visit that will revolutionise how rugby tours operate in the future.
The Lions won’t be a tour in the traditional sense but an élite global sporting event.
Never before has a Lions tour been a joint venture between the tourists and the host nation. The South African Rugby Union, through a Special Purpose Vehicle registered as the South African Rugby Event Service (SARES), and the British & Irish Lions (BIL), agreed on a partnership designed to make the 2021 Lions in South Africa the greatest spectator and supporter experience in the history of the Lions and also commercially the most successful for the South African Rugby Union and the Lions.
The Lions in South Africa has always been about firsts. The first ever international Test series in rugby was the Lions against the Springboks in 1891. The Lions' nickname was coined in South Africa in the 1924 visit. The first ever drawn Test series was between the Lions and the Springboks in 1955, and the first ever Lions team to go unbeaten on tour was in South Africa in 1974.
The first Lions professional tour was against the Springboks in 1997 and very little separates the two teams in 46 Tests, with the Springboks winning 23, the Lions 17 and the remaining six matches drawn.
The history and the memories from the past have been so special.
Take a look back at some of the great Tours in South Africa.
South Africa should have hosted the 2023 Rugby World Cup. An Independent Committee recommended to World Rugby that South Africa’s bid was the strongest when assessed against France and Ireland.
There were 27 categories in the 2023 Rugby World Cup bid and South Africa was rated the best in 17 of those categories. South Africa’s recommendation was made public and official two weeks before World Rugby’s Council’s vote. The expectation was that the Council members would rubber-stamp and endorse the 18-month working assessment of the Independent Committee.
Stunningly, France was awarded hosting rights for 2023 when it came to a vote.
"The 2023 Rugby World Cup bid outcome was a massive disappointment for us, as a nation and as one of the powerhouses of rugby," recalls South African Rugby Union president Mark Alexander. "It was also a huge commercial blow. We had to regroup and ensure that the British & Irish Lions in South Africa in 2021 spoke to everything we would have wanted to achieve with the hosting of the 2023 Rugby World Cup."
The South African Rugby Union subsequently invested in the expertise of the best sporting commercial brokers and some of the most experienced and astute minds in rugby. What followed was a commercial model that spoke to every international global professional sporting trend.
"Our schedule falls in a way to allow us to start at sea level before building up and acclimatising to the unique environment that playing at altitude presents" - Warren Gatland #LionsSA2021pic.twitter.com/BbWoVvyT02
A joint venture with the Lions was agreed, with the Lions head coach Warren Gatland as much a part of the eight-event schedule structure, as the South African Rugby Union.
This was no longer just about a rugby tour, in which the tourists are shifted up and down the country for the sake of it and for a supposed hometown advantage.
The schedule was meticulously thought out, so as to ensure an unrivalled spectator and fan experience. The schedule also had to speak to maximising the tourists' ability to perform, and every commercial avenue had to be maximised.
The Lions, in rugby, are second only to the Rugby World Cup, but the Lions are also unique in that they only visit South Africa every 12 years.
South Africa’s Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus is a disciple of the Lions. Erasmus played against the them in 1997 and insists that the mystique of the Lions has to be protected and that the importance of the Lions has to be ingrained in the psyche of rugby fans in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
"The British & Irish Lions are very special and 2021 will be an incredible occasion. You have the best of four nations, three of whom were ranked number one prior to and during the World Cup, playing against the world champion Springboks," says Erasmus. "You also have five other matches, where South African players get a once in a career opportunity to play against the Lions. There are Springboks who have played in three World Cups and won the World Cup but who never got to experience playing against the Lions."
Alexander, a traditionalist in rugby’s values and ethos, is also a realist when it comes to professional sport and the commercial non-negotiables that govern professional sport.
"We had to create a vehicle to deliver a global élite sporting event that gives a world-class supporter experience. Our filter is the player, the supporter, the legacy, the efficiency and commercial. When we assessed existing tour models, we knew we had to change. We had to learn all the lessons and improve delivery. We also know what the Lions in South Africa brings to our country, in tourism, in job creation and in money," says Alexander.
"The projections are that 13300 temporary jobs will be created, with many evolving to sustainable and permanent jobs. We are expecting 37000 tourists to support the Lions across South Africa. There will be a R450 million tax benefit to government and significant economic benefits."
South Africa’s track record to host the biggest and grandest global sporting events is exemplary and Alexander believes the Lions in South Africa in 2021 will be ground-breaking and revolutionary to rugby on every level.
The British & Irish Lions chairman and former Lions prop Jason Leonard echoes a similar view.
"I am massively excited about the Lions South Africa 2021. It will be the biggest and the best."
Ian McGeechan, who played for and coached the Lions in South Africa, says to be in South Africa as part of the ‘Sea of Red’ is an experience never to be forgotten.
"South Africa has a special atmosphere to it that you simply can’t find anywhere else," says McGeechan.
Another of the Lions legends, Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll says: "South Africa gets it (the Lions) the most and as a player you know it is going to be hard."
Former Lions players saturated social media platforms when the tour schedule was confirmed earlier in the week. Ireland’s Gordon D’Arcy tweeted: "What a schedule in a beautiful rugby mad country." And England’s Lawrence Dallaglio added: "If you’re thinking about something to aim for in 2021 then go Big!! Go and follow the Lions (The Special Forces of Rugby) v the World Champions. The 1997 Tour to South Africa was the best rugby experience of my life!"