CAPE TOWN - The British and Irish Lions tour is regarded as the big carrot for South African rugby, considering the knocks taken during the Covid-19 pandemic over the last year.
About R1.2-billion was shaved off local rugby’s expenses last year, with salary cuts and competitions abandoned, while contracts were also affected.
So, the fact that the Lions tour will take place is a huge relief to SA Rugby. Now the nitty-gritty of that trip is being worked out, with the latest report from the Daily Mail newspaper in the UK stating that, to maximise profit, two of the three Tests could be played at the FNB Stadium, which is the biggest arena in South Africa at 95 000 capacity.
The report said that this plan of action comes as Lions fans from overseas won’t be allowed to travel to SA for the tour, and that only a limited amount of local spectators would be able to attend the Test matches.
My information is that such a decision has not been made as yet. SA Rugby are still awaiting an answer from government as to how many fans would be allowed at the stadiums, if any, and it is not a fait accompli that two Tests would be at the FNB Stadium because of its capacity.
Should that be the case, though? Commercially, it would make the most sense. If the government allows 50% capacity, it would mean 47 500 people would be able to watch at the FNB Stadium, compared to 27 500 at Cape Town Stadium, 31 000 at Ellis Park and 26 000 at Loftus Versfeld and Kings Park.
But the rugby argument is a strong one too. The romanticism of a Lions tour is a rare treat for fans these days, and even if only limited numbers are allowed at the matches, as many parts of the country as possible must have access to a live game.
SA Rugby was heavily criticised during the 2009 tour for playing the second and third Tests in Gauteng (Loftus Versfeld and Ellis Park respectively), ostensibly to make as much money as possible.
It resulted in Cape Town missing out on a Test match, and the governing body tried to remedy that by hosting two tour games (against Western Province and the Emerging Springboks) at Newlands.
But it was not even close to having a Test in the Mother City.
In 2021, it appears if Durban may lose out, as the Cape Town Stadium is earmarked in some reports as one venue, with FNB Stadium taking the last two Tests.
Not only would such a scenario be a blow to the fans and the KZN Rugby Union, but also the Sharks players, who would surely want to play a Test on their home ground.
At the moment, the eight tour matches are still set to take place, although that could also change if government insists on a bio-bubble set-up for the Lions, which could be in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Whatever the final schedule is, let’s hope that most of the elements that make up a traditional Lions tour special remain …