Mark Keohane.
Mark Keohane.

Crowds or not, the British and Irish Lions Tour must happen

By Opinion Time of article published Mar 27, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - Springboks World Cup winning coach and National Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus, a few months ago, declared that if his world champions had to go to Britain and do battle with the best of the British & Irish Lions then that is what they would do to make the Test series happen.

Erasmus was among the most influential voices in promoting the virtues of the Lions as an entity. He had made his Test debut against the famed men in red in 1997. He understood the significance of the Lions, to the history of the Springboks, and to the world game.

He was also emphatic that in an ideal world, free of the #Covid pandemic, 2021 would still hopefully produce the greatest rugby tour ever when the Lions arrived in South Africa.

Erasmus made these statements several months ago, while the tour organisers worked frantically to unpack the Lions in South Africa with full crowds, the Lions in South Africa with 50 percent crowds, the Lions in South Africa with scattered crowds, the Lions in South Africa behind closed doors, the Lions in South Africa playing in one centralized location, bubbled in adherence with strict Covid protocols, the Lions simply in South Africa.

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The alternative was the Springboks in the United Kingdom and Ireland, just to make the series happen.

Commercially, the strongest argument was for the tour to be flipped if there could be no guarantee of crowds in South Africa or Lions touring supporters to South Africa.

South Africa, as a country, was always earmarked as the biggest beneficiary of the Lions tour. It was projected that the Lions, as an eight-occasion rugby carnival, would bring in excess of R6 billion to the economy.

The South African Rugby Union, robbed of the hosting rights to the 2023 World Cup because of politically motivated and agenda-based voting, at least had the financial windfall of the Lions as some sort of comfort.

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The behind-the-scenes work has been ongoing for the past three years. A dedicated business, the South African Rugby Event Services, was formed by the Lions and SA Rugby to ensure a commercial model unique to tours and in the best interests of both entities.

It has been full on for the past three years. So much has gone into the planning and preparation. And then Covid struck and refused to leave quietly.

SA Rugby’s leadership for the past six months has explored every opportunity to ensure the world champions could host the Lions. When it seemed there was no possibility of crowds and all the talk in Britain was of crowds returning to sporting events by the end of June, a historic flip tour beckoned.

I have been privy to the effort that has gone on behind the scenes and the incredible contributions being made to get the Springboks onto the field against the Lions, regardless of where the series would be played.

The ongoing effort has showcased the respect there is for the occasion and while the flip tour hasn’t materialized because overseas government guarantees couldn’t be secured, the one consistent throughout has been SA Rugby’s leadership’s decisiveness to do what is right for South African rugby and for South Africa.

ALSO READ: Lions Board, SA Rugby confirm South Africa as preferred hosts of Test series

They couldn’t delay the decision any longer, in the hope of a miracle South African vaccination programme and the Lions couldn’t offer hosting risk guarantees.

To go back to Erasmus’s original rallying cry, it was a case of this series simply had to be played, regardless of crowds or no crowds.

And now that the series is confirmed, the rallying cry is how South Africans can still turn the Lions in South Africa into one of the most remembered events, despite not necessarily getting to the ground.

Significantly, it will be the first time Siya Kolisi’s champions will play since the glorious 32-12 humiliation of England in Tokyo in the 2019 World Cup final.

The creative juices of every South African will be challenged. How to turn a non-spectator event into a great day?

Who knows the answers just yet, but if the history of this country is the reference, then be assured that come July and August, something out of the ordinary would have emerged to celebrate the biggest sporting show in South Africa since the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Selfishly, I’d want the entire tour schedule to play out in the Western Cape. Selfishly, because I am based in Cape Town.

More realistically, if it is to be played within one centralized location, the obvious choice is Gauteng because of the number of world class stadiums.

For now, so much is uncontrollable as rugby’s bosses and government try and find a solution to social distancing and reduced crowd capacities.

The only controllable is every individual’s attitude, and South African rugby supporters, indeed all South Africans, can turn this attitude into a tangible of goodwill because, crowds or no crowds, we simply have to make this tour work.

@Mark_Keohane

IOL Sport

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