The Mother of all tours await SA fans when the British and Irish Lions come to visit. Photo: AP Photo/Christophe Ena
The Mother of all tours await SA fans when the British and Irish Lions come to visit. Photo: AP Photo/Christophe Ena

The Mother of all tours

By Mark Keohane Time of article published Feb 21, 2020

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The British & Irish Lions in South Africa is bigger than the Rugby World Cup 2023 in South Africa would have been. There is more financial benefit to the South African Rugby Union for this eight-event rugby extravaganza than there would have been in hosting rugby’s next World Cup.

The game’s health aside, South Africa as a country will be the biggest beneficiary. In addition to the positive impact on the economy, the intangible benefits include:

* The stadiums built for the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa will be utilised for the eight matches.

* These eight matches will promote tourism to South Africa during and after the event and already a conservative estimate is that 30 000 travelling Lions supporters will saturate South Africa while the Lions are here.

* The Tour will serve as a marketing opportunity for South Africa, will generate interest to host other global events locally and will foster confidence and pride in the people of South Africa and improve the cohesion of a nation.

Challenge set: The Boks beat the Lions 2-1 in 2009

“There hasn’t been a sporting occasion bigger than the Lions 2021 since the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup,” enthused SA Rugby Union president Mark Alexander. “The Lions come only every 12 years. It is a once in a generation sporting experience for individuals and families. We are the world champions and the Lions represent the best of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. If you love rugby and if you love sports, you simply have to be there, be it at the stadium, at the fan parks, at your local or in your living room watching it on television.”

The SA Rugby Union, in partnership with the British & Irish Lions, have combined in a joint venture to make the 2021 visit the most revolutionary commercial model in professional rugby. They’re holding hands to maximise every commercial upturn and they are also holding hands to safeguard everything that is traditional about the history of the Lions. Equally, the hand holding extends to all that is progressive about future Lions visits to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Much has been made about the reduction in matches, but the global professional calendar simply cannot accommodate 12 to 18 games. What was once a tour, now has to be a series of spectacular sporting events.

“I can’t overstate what the Lions means to international rugby and what they mean to the Springboks and what they will contribute to an economically stronger South Africa," says Alexander. "There are Springboks who have played in three World Cups but never against the British & Irish Lions. There are brilliant players from the United Kingdom and Ireland who have achieved everything for their respective countries but have never been to SA for a Lions tour. This, people of South Africa, is massive.

“It is why we are imploring South Africans to register for ticket interest, to book their tickets by way of the internationally accepted ballot system and to ensure that there is more green and gold at every stadium than the expected sea of Lions red.”

SA Rugby president Mark Alexander. Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Alexander was a feisty hooker in his playing days. He didn’t take a back seat to any opponent but because of apartheid and segregation his story, like so many in South Africa, wasn’t told in the white-dominated mainstream media. Pre-SA’s international rugby re-entry in 1992, he led the opposition to any international sporting tours to South Africa. This included rugby and it included the British & Irish Lions.

“No normal sport in an abnormal society” was the mantra of activists who fought an apartheid system which denied all South Africans equal opportunity.

Alexander will never have regrets about his stance pre-1992 and equally he has no issue with his stance post 1992. “We fought for equal opportunities and normality in society, which included international sporting opportunities to selection for every South African. Without yesterday’s fight, we wouldn’t have today a black kid from the townships standing tall and wowing the world as captain of the Springboks and captain of the team voted the best sporting team in 2019. That moment, watching Siya (Kolisi) receive the award, was a tribute to every individual who over the years fought for the right for each kid to have the chance to prove he or she is good enough to play for South Africa on the sports field and that he or she is equal as a citizen of South Africa. Siya, in Berlin, was the present and future but also the product of the fight from the past.”

Alexander doesn’t want to dwell on the past.

“We remind ourselves through the past, but we live in the present and the fight against the past hopefully will shape our future. I watched the Lions in South Africa in 1997 and supported their visit because we were unified as a democratic nation. I was deputy president of the South African Rugby Union in 2009 when the world champion Springboks, under Peter de Villiers and John Smit, claimed an incredible series win. No one in South African rugby will ever forget Morné Steyn’s 50 metre last minute penalty at Loftus in Pretoria to win the series. It was a remarkable kick to end a remarkable series.”

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Alexander knows that 2021, when the Springboks are again entertaining the Lions as world champions, will be even more remarkable.

“The rugby will be great. Each match is an occasion. It is so much bigger than the three-Test series against the Springboks. Players in this country, who may never play international rugby, will get to play the Lions. In the professional world of rugby this no longer happens on an annual basis, and it does represent a once in a career opportunity for those players not involved in the Test series.”

Over and above the player enticement, Alexander reflects on the economic impact of having the British & Irish Lions in South Africa.

“The economic impact assessment of the Lions in South Africa in 2021 is a good news story for our country. The direct, indirect and induced economic impact is estimated at R6.6 billion. There will be 13 300 temporary jobs created or permanent jobs sustained. The direct spend will be R3.5 billion and the net return will be R3.1 billion for South Africa,” says Alexander. “This one event, encompassing eight occasions, will contribute an additional four per cent to tourism in a month.”

The Lions supporters, based on previous tours and the history of their travelling support, will be 30000, which equates to a tax benefit for government of R510 million.

“The Lions in SA in 2021 will be as much about job creation as it will be the series result,” says Alexander. “It will be remembered as the biggest and the best of elite sporting events. There will be 340 000 tickets available for the eight occasions and for the first time in history we are hoping to sell every ticket for every match. Collectively, that is our goal and selfishly I also want the Lions 2021 to be remembered as the year in which the world champion Springboks triumphed again.”

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