The British and Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa has been plunged into further chaos after the Springboks were forced to cancel training on Sunday and self-isolate following three positive Covid-19 test results.
Wing S’bu Nkosi, prop Vincent Koch and scrum-half Herschel Jantjies have been named by Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber as the three players who have tested positive. Koch joined the Springbok camp on Saturday after wrapping up the Championship season with Saracens.
All of the 45-man squad were tested on Saturday when they linked up for the latest Springbok camp in Johannesburg, having been outside of the team’s bio-secure bubble for only two days following the conclusion of South Africa’s previous three-week training camp in Bloemfontein, which finished on Thursday. Players during the Bloemfontein camp were tested three times a week.
"It can be at home, on a plane, opening a door, anywhere. It’s definitely not something that happened in camp where the guys did something wrong," said SA Rugby’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
The Springboks are currently preparing for their first Test matches since the 2019 Rugby World Cup final victory, with South Africa set to face Georgia in two Test matches on July 2 in Pretoria and July 9 at Ellis Park.
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That first Test against Georgia next Friday may now be in doubt given the number of cases in South Africa’s squad and the period of isolation players will have to go through in the coming days.
Erasmus added that he was "confident" the first Test against Georgia would go ahead as planned. South Africa will need 23 players with negative Covid tests and who have not been identified as close contacts available for the first Test to go ahead.
"Although it disrupts our training sessions, it’s happened all over the world and it’s happened all over the world," Erasmus said. "If people think clearly, we have to put 23 fit Springbok players on the park on Friday and we have 45 in camp. There are protocols we will follow, but I don’t think the Test match is in any way threatened. I’m feeling confident about that. Many provincial and club coaches have had to handle this in the last few months."
Sunday’s planned training session in Johannesburg was scrapped as a precautionary measure following the results of Saturday’s PCR testing, which took place when the Springbok squad assembled on Saturday.
The entire Springboks squad are now isolating "until specialist medical advice is sought from the Lions Series Medical Advisory Group (MAG)," according to SA Rugby, with a decision on team activities "to be made shortly".
The British and Irish Lions squad are due to fly out to South Africa on Sunday evening, flying to Johannesburg to prepare for their first warm-up fixture in South Africa against the Emirates Lions on July 3. Warren Gatland has been hit by the loss of his captain Alun Wyn Jones, who dislocated a shoulder in Saturday’s warm-up Test against Japan at Murrayfield, and Justin Tipuric, who also injured his shoulder in the same game.
Warren Gatland lost Alun Wyn Jones to injury in the warm-up match against Japan
Credit: Getty Images
Both Erasmus and Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber worked closely with new Lions tour captain Conor Murray at Munster and praised his appointment, replacing Jones.
"Alun Wyn is a big loss for them. Conor Murray being appointed new captain, we know him well and obviously he is a player who can do the job for them," added Erasmus.
Nienaber added: "I enjoyed working with Conor, or ‘Murr’ as he’s known. He’s a no-nonsense guy, not a lot of bells and whistles. He’s to the point, gets the job done and is brilliant at what he does. It was a privilege working with him. We lost him at the back end of our season at the end of 2017 before facing Saracens in the [Champions Cup] semi-final and he was a big loss, we felt it when he wasn’t there. He’s got a steady head, a good skill-set, people enjoy him and yeah, he’s a great tour captain."
As for the Lions’ win over Japan, both Springbok coaches were impressed with how the fast start made by the Lions at Murrayfield.
"They hit their straps early on," Nienaber noted. "It’s one of the strengths of Warren being there as head coach, after successful tours in the past working out how to get people aligned and you could see that clearly on Saturday."
Erasmus added: "If you look at the Lions squad, although they weren’t together so long and not having guys available in the Premiership final, Japan are a side we struggled to beat and I feel [the Lions] got rhythm quite quickly."
The Lions are also having to contend with a complete absence of travelling fans for the games in South Africa, as well as strict Covid protocols when they arrive in the country. Covid-19 cases are rising sharply in South Africa, with president Cyril Ramaphosa set to address the country on Sunday evening.