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Lions tour near collapse

The 2021 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa is at risk as the Covid-19 pandemic rages havoc in South Africa. Whilst there was a lot of uncertainty about the tour taking place this year, with suggestions of it being held abroad in the UK or Australia, it got the green light and the Lions faced the Lions on Saturday as it got underway in the empty Ellis Park Stadium.

Since Saturdays game, Springbok lock Lood de Jager has tested positive for the virus and the entire Springbok squad has been placed in isolation. It has now also been confirmed that a number of players at the Pretoria based Blue Bulls have also tested positive and the fixture between them and the B & I Lions has now been officially postponed.

Whilst teams are all in so called "bio-bubbles", severely restricting their contact with the outside world to limit their chances of exposure, this week has shown that it isn't impenetrable. De Jager was reportedly in close contact with a number of squad members as would be expected in a team environment and on the field in a contact sport.

The entire Springbok squad has been in self isolation since Monday as the MAC (medical advisory committee) for the Lions tour conducts rapid tests and assesses the severity of the outbreak before providing the team with further direction on how to proceed. Their game against Georgia on Friday hangs in the balance, and should they not take the field, the Springboks run the risk of facing the Lions on the 24th of July, severely under prepared.

Whilst the outbreak in Pretoria has added further to the headache as due to the number of players testing positive, the game will definitely not proceed as scheduled. There are already talks underway that the B&I Lions could then face Georgia on the weekend if the Springboks suffer the same fate as the domestic franchise.

It was always going to be difficult to pull a tour of this nature off under the circumstances, one has to question why the decision to proceed was taken. Emotions ran high when Australia proposed hosting the tour and the idea was quickly scrapped, the idea of hosting it in the UK was also seen as less than ideal. I firmly believe the tour should have been postponed by a year because this is no ordinary pandemic and this is no way for the B & I Lions to experience a tour to South Africa.

Instead of team building outings with trips to the Kruger Park and Sun City to see the Big 5 and play some golf they players are locked up in their hotels playing board games. The players train and return to their hotel instead of surfing in Durban ahead of their clash with the Sharks or visiting the wine farms in Cape Town before meeting the Stormers.

Worst of all though is the sobering silence the teams are greeted with as they take to the field. Ellis Park is a hallowed rugby ground in SA, having seen Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup there in 1995. On Saturday when they B&I Lions faced the Lions, there was not a fan in sight. No red army, no Lions supporters, no 'gees" and worst of all, South African's couldn't even enjoy a beer around the braai at home since alcohol is currently banned under level 4 restrictions.

I fear the British & Irish Lions will leave South Africa in a few weeks time, having failed to complete a full fixture list, with few memories of all the country has to offer and an indelible stain on a tour rooted in deep tradition running all the way back to the 1800's. If the Springboks fail to take the field against Georgia on Friday, it would be ludicrous to expect them to be competitive should they recover in time for the 1st test. It begs the question, was a failed tour worth the effort and short financial gain when a delayed but full tour would have done the game as a whole justice.

Whichever way it goes, the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour is going to be one to remember, whether its for the right reasons, remains to be seen.

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