CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — The British and Irish Lions will play in only three cities on their tour of South Africa to mitigate the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and there will almost certainly be no fans at any of the games for the first time in the Lions' 133-year history, the two teams said Friday.
The announcement at least confirmed that the tour will go ahead in July and August with the Lions playing eight games, including three tests against the reigning world champion Springboks.
But seven of the eight games will now be in either Johannesburg or Cape Town, with the other in Pretoria. Because of the virus, the Lions will not travel to Durban, Port Elizabeth or Nelspruit.
The test series will also have an unusual ending: The first test will now be in Cape Town and the second and third tests back-to-back in Johannesburg at the 95,000-seat FNB Stadium. It's set to be empty for the Lions.
SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said they were hopeful that the South African government might relax some restrictions on fans being allowed back into sports stadiums by July “but, for the moment, we are planning for an event behind closed doors.”
The chance of there being fans at games is almost zero. South Africa hasn’t allowed any spectators at any top-level sporting event since the pandemic began and is expected to experience a third wave of virus infections in the coming weeks, experts say. That would likely last through the Southern Hemisphere winter months of June and July. The Lions’ six-week tour starts July 3.
Having no fans will remove much of the spirit and color that characterizes Lions tours.
The Lions regularly take tens of thousands of their supporters with them on their once-every-four-years tours to South Africa, New Zealand or Australia. The team, a combination of players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, has been touring since 1888. And their fans’ raucous but friendly presence has been a key part of the tour atmosphere in recent decades, another thing now lost to the pandemic.
“While things will undoubtedly look different to a typical Lions tour ... we are determined to deliver an uninterrupted series for the players who will take the field, as well as the many millions of people watching at home,” British and Irish Lions managing director Ben Calveley said. “We would like to thank all Lions supporters for their patience and understanding as we continue to navigate our way through the impact of the pandemic.”
South Africa has more than 1.5 million confirmed cases and more than 50,000 deaths from COVID-19, and a variant of the virus that is believed to be more contagious and which caused the Australian cricket team to completely cancel a tour to South Africa this year.
The decision to base the Lions in two hubs in Johannesburg and Cape Town was “to minimize the risks of disruption that could be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the teams said.
The Lions squad of 37 players plus coaching and backroom staff will now be able to stay in bio-bubbles in two hotels, one in Johannesburg and one in Cape Town. They will be able to travel to the Pretoria game by bus from Johannesburg, about a 40-minute drive.
Critically, they will only need to take two internal flights and not the six, at least, they would have needed to take along with additional road travel and more hotel stays to visit the other cities on the original schedule. That will minimize their time in public spaces like airports and in numerous hotels, so minimizing their possible exposure to the virus.
SA Rugby canceled one of the Lions' planned games, against an invitational team which would have had players from across South Africa, and replaced it with a game against a domestic team based in Johannesburg. That was “to reduce the risks associated with drawing a squad from around the country,” SA Rugby said.
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Gerald Imray, The Associated Press