Players are put through their paces on the field

Credit: PA

The British and Irish Lions tour suffered a blow on Tuesday with the postponement of their weekend game in Pretoria amid an outbreak of Covid-19 cases in South African rugby that highlighted the growing third wave of infections in the country.

The Lions were to play the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday but four of the local players, plus one official, tested positive and because of their close contact with team mates, all must isolate, leaving the Currie Cup champions unable to field a team. There were also more players who tested positive on Tuesday in the Springbok camp.

So how is Warren Gatland’s team adapting to a Lions tour under strict Covid regulations?

Hotel rules

Covid protocols may not be as demanding as they were for the national sides during the Six Nations but this tour is unlike any before it. The Lions have booked out an entire 194-room five-star hotel situated in the northern suburb of Fourways in Johannesburg, with no other guests permitted to stay. All of the staff in the hotel are tested for Covid-19 while the Lions tradition of sharing rooms, that was reinstated after 2005, has been axed, with each player given their own room. 

Unlike the Six Nations, players are free to move around the hotel, but they must do so wearing a mask at all times. They are only allowed to remove their masks when eating and drinking. During meal times players must pick plates and utensils up with plastic bags to reduce the risk of spread. 

Any visitors to the hotel, such media crews, must undergo a PCR test 48 hours before coming into an “amber zone” outside the Lions hotel, with interviews taking place socially distanced, outside and with equipment disinfected. 

The players travel to training and matches in two coaches, with named seats to ensure that if there is an outbreak that contact can be more easily. There are strict protocols in place for training, including named water bottles and disinfecting of equipment.

Card schools

The players have had to improve to provide their own entertainment during the tour so far, given the lack of opportunities for socialising outside of their hotel or cultural visits. Their response has been old-school, with card schools popping up reminiscent of Lions tours of yesteryear. It is not just at night either, with games being played in between training sessions to fill out the day. 

The game of choice is gin rummy. Liam Williams and Anthony Watson may have become good friends since touring together in New Zealand four years ago but the competition has been fierce on the card table. “We have been playing a lot of cards and we have been getting hustled by the Welsh boys who have got some pretty funny rules,” said Anthony Watson. 

“Myself and Tadhg (Beirne) have been getting ‘finessed’ so we had to pay a bit of money to those guys. I have had to pay up around £100. I am looking to get it all back. Dan Biggar is pretty good and I have to say through gritted teeth Liam Williams as well. They’ve put their rules in place to suit them. And they’ve hustled us all so we’ll look to change and get our money back.”  

Games room and DJ sets

Within the confines of the Montecasino Hotel the Lions have an entertainment room set up to not only pass time in the evenings but also enhance and deepen the bonding process that began when they first assembled in Jersey three weeks ago. There are pool tables and table tennis tables and an array of video games.

“There is always lots of stuff going on in the evenings at our hotel, whether that be playing cards, hanging out in the team room, a cool dartboard, ping pong tables and a snooker table,” said Liam Williams.

Watson has also been playing PlayStation with his mate Tyrone Mings, who is in the England football squad preparing for their European semi-final against Denmark.

“It would be great for the summer of sport if England can do well in the Euros and then we can do well in the series and then the Olympics,” added Watson. “It will have a domino effect.

Tom Curry is also learning the practice of DJing with Tadhg Furlong. “We are coming along nicely, Navidi is our mentor,” said Curry. “We’re trying to learn as much as possible.”

The Committees

A Lions tour is nothing without the committees, and a governing structure has already been put in place. Williams is on the entertainments committee, Dan Biggar is on the laundry committee, Wyn Jones and Tadhg Furlong on the food committee while there is also an environmental committee to ensure everyone ‘is sweeping the sheds’. There are announcers on the coaches, Louis Rees-Zammit and Chris Harris have been doing joke of the day and the most intimidating of all is the fines committee, with two eager enforcers in Mako Vunipola and Bundee Aki. “They are the tough guys you don’t really want to mess with,” adds Williams.

“Mako has got all the fines written down and they are going to be posted up in a big list in the next day or two. There is going to be a court session, which is going to be run by the judges – Bundee, Mako and Faz (Owen Farrell).”

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