All three options for the Lions tour – play in South Africa, switch to UK, or delay by a year – remain on the table
Contingency planning for switching the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa to the United Kingdom and Ireland has intensified ahead of a board meeting on Friday.
The eight-man Lions board must decide whether to continue with the scheduled eight-match tour of South Africa in July and August amid concerns that travelling supporters are unlikely to be able to attend and matches may have to be played behind closed doors because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sources insist that no decision has yet been made, although the gathering of extensive information – which has included the costing of stadium hire and the availability of staff from the home unions – has led some to believe there is momentum behind the UK and Ireland option to salvage the series in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. A decision is expected by the end of the month.
It is understood logistical planning for what would effectively be a “start-up” event was discussed at a feasibility meeting last Friday and projections for the commercial returns from ticketing and hospitality packages suggest it would outstrip South Africa – if capacity crowds are allowed by July and August.
The use of some football stadiums – including St James’ Park and Villa Park – are also being considered as host venues for matches against South African provincial sides such as the Sharks and the Bulls, who would be flown to the UK to create the original tour schedule.
Under the contingency plan the three Test matches would be played at Twickenham, the Principality Stadium in Cardiff and the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, as Murrayfield is already hosting the scheduled pre-tour match against Japan in June.
Supporters of switching the tour location believe it would increase the chance of crowds being able to attend given the impact of the vaccination programme – and the potential revenues would help ease financial pressures for both the home unions and their South African counterparts.
There is also a feeling it could create a “festival of rugby” type celebration to bolster grass-roots rugby clubs, which has been hit hard by the Covid lockdown, ahead of the start of next season.
The move would almost certainly face a backlash from Lions supporters who cherish the mystique and uniqueness of the touring side. It would also come with a significant financial risk given the costs involved of hosting the “tour” if social distancing restrictions are not lifted here to allow supporters to attend matches. Postponing the tour to next year is thought to be the outside option.