Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport
A British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa is considered the greatest of them all because of the rugby, the coastline, the safaris and the sunshine. It is an international rugby supporters’ dream trip.
But the 2021 visit from the famed men in red will also be the most significant in the professional age because the eight occasion rugby extravaganza, which starts in Cape Town with a match against the Stormers at the Cape Town Stadium on 3rd July and finishes in Johannesburg on 7th August, will also be a financial bloodline as SA Rugby, like their global counterparts, economically start the fight back from Covid-19.
The Lions only visit South Africa every 12 years, but the timing could not have been better and neither could the foresight of a first ever joint venture between SA Rugby and the Lions in combining the two brand entities to make one significantly more powerful entity in a centralised programme.
The motivation to collaborate and create a single commercial model is the projected increase of revenue for South African Rugby, as well as the British & Irish Lions, which will help with the financial sustainability as the game’s leaders, globally, explore every commercial alternative to restore strength to the balance sheets.
Player welfare and the spectator experience are the primary filters of a tour that will be defined by the quality of the rugby and the numbers in attendance, be it at the stadium or through mass supporter interest in the eight matches.
The Springboks and Lions have always ticked the box when it comes to notable firsts and this joint commercial venture is another first. No Lions tour has ever been approached in this way.
The world-champion Springboks against the best of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland is the most luring rugby spectacle on offer in 2021. Outside of hosting a Rugby World Cup, there is nothing bigger than having the Lions in South Africa for six weeks in 2021.
South Africa, as a country, will benefit economically and locals will also be winners with the projected creation of 13 300 temporary jobs, with many expected to evolve to sustainable and permanent jobs.
The British & Irish Lions in 2021 will be the biggest sporting event in this country since South Africa so magnificently played host to soccer’s FIFA World Cup in 2010, and the expectation is that all South Africans will embrace the rugby carnival as they did soccer’s World Cup.
In effect, three of the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-finalists (South Africa, England & Wales) will be in action when the Springboks play in the three-Test series.
The Lions visit though extends the spectacle of those three Test matches and five other matches, and one of the biggest seductions for South African players is to have the opportunity to play against the visitors.
South African players, post the World Cup, have been unanimous in their acknowledgement of what the Lions mean to them.
The 2019 World Cup-winning flyhalf Handre Pollard said playing the Lions had been a dream since he was a youngster and the 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year and World Cup winner Pieter-Steph du Toit described the Lions as bigger than the World Cup because they only visited every 12 years.
Du Toit said while a World Cup winners medal was the pinnacle of a player’s international career, the tournament structure, hosted every four years, meant some players got two or three chances to win a World Cup.
But to beat the Lions, is usually a once-off opportunity. You win and the euphoria stays with the player for life. Lose and there is seldom a second chance for redemption.
Frans Steyn could be the exception to the rule and South Africa’s brilliant utility back wants to do the double on the Lions, as he did with his double World Cup winners medals in 2007 and 2019.
Steyn, a series winner against the Lions in 2009, has spent the majority of his professional career playing in France, but earlier this year he returned to South Africa and made it clear that he wasn’t just back to play provincial rugby.
So did the Cheetahs coach Hawies Fourie: ‘Frans wants to play the British & Irish Lions. He isn’t in Bloemfontein to retire. He wants to play in those Tests. He is on a mission.’
Sir Ian McGeechan, who played for and coached the Lions in South Africa, said that being in South Africa as part of the ‘Sea of Red’ is an experience never to be forgotten.
‘South Africa has a special atmosphere to it that you simply can’t find anywhere else,’ said McGeechan. ‘It doesn’t get better for supporters, in terms of host cities, or harder for the players, in terms of rugby.’