Any belief that the British & Irish Lions being in South Africa is about dollars is misguided. If it was only about the money the Lions would never have arrived in South Africa and the tour would have been flipped to the United Kingdom months ago, writes Mark Keohane.
Several months ago, on the 23d January, I wrote a piece promoting the virtues of the a flip tour and I know that that flip tour was a genuine possibility among the leadership of SA Rugby and Lions Rugby. This was after a postponement of the tour to 2022 was explored and contact was made with every one of the 11 Test nations who would have been effected by the Lions touring South Africa in 2022 instead of 2021.
The knock-on effect of a change in tour to 2022 would have also effected the various European club competitions, like the Premiership and the Top 14, who had already adjusted their schedule in 2021 to accommodate the Lions visiting South Africa.
The home unions, who make up the British & Irish Lions, were also cautious about postponement because of the impact it could have on their 2023 World Cup preparations. There was also the concern that traditionally there was always a drop off in player performance the year after a Lions series.
The ideal scenario was a postponement, but common ground just could not be found for the tour to shift out a year, especially with England and Ireland going down under for a three-Test series and those Test matches demanding full-strength touring squads.
Once the postponement was not an option, then the flip tour was an alternative, given the projections were that crowds would be allowed back into the stadiums, as way have seen this month at Euro 2020, with attendance up to 60 000 and an announcement expected on 19th July that all sporting events in the United Kingdom would be restored to full crowd capacity.
The revenue model was the most lucrative for SA Rugby and the Lions, but it also needed a UK government financial guarantee should there be a shutdown of crowds. This could not be secured.
The only alternative was to host the Lions, to put every Covid protocol possible in place and to hope that the gods smiled on the tour.
Well, they haven’t and the first week has been torture with the Bulls and Springbok squad dealt massive blows through Covid infections.
Georgia, who played the Springboks in Pretoria a week ago, also have Covid infections.
The way this week has played out and the way the third wave has engulfed Gauteng in the past month and is growing in numbers throughout the country, have been the realisation of a ‘worst-case’ scenario.
SA Rugby and the Lions, with no crowds and no hospitality and no 40 000 travelling Lions supporters are not able to cash in on this tour, so any accusations that it is cash above all else are ill-informed and so off the mark.
The tour, which at best, is now a television product, is only worth so much because of broadcasting deal. The real benefits to the South African economy and the SA Rugby Union and Lions, was in tickets sales, hospitality and the spend over eight weeks of South African rugby supporters and 40 000 overseas visitors. None of that has happened.
The Test series remains the biggest priority now and there is an argument to be made financially to try and flip the tour and play those three Tests in the United Kingdom. It would make commercial sense, but it goes against everything that is considered the fabric of the Lions, which is that they are a touring team and that, outside of the odd pre-tour match at home, they don’t play at home.
Social media on Tuesday was full of advice, opinions, accusations and flippancy as to the supposed incompetence of the tour organisers. It is so devoid of accuracy because the work that has gone into this tour over the past 30 months would be difficult to articulate in a few paragraphs.
The situation is an awful one and there is no one to blame.
The first Test is scheduled for the Cape Town Stadium on the 24th July, with the next two Tests to be played at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. It would come as no surprise if all three Tests were played in Cape Town, but it would also not be a shock if the Test series did not happen.
This is a tour, in which the landscape will change every day because of Covid. Everyone connected the tour is in survival mode to try and make something of the Covid chaos, and if nothing comes from the next three weeks, in terms of a Test series, it won’t be down to a behind the scenes lack of effort.
These are extraordinary times and to see the Springboks play the Lions in the next month may require an extraordinary flip in thinking and decision-making.