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The British & Irish Lions are closely monitoring the worst disturbances South Africa has experienced since apartheid ahead of their ‘fourth Test’ against South Africa ‘A’ on Wednesday evening.

Nearly 50 people have died and 750 people arrested in rioting and looting in nearly a week since former president Jacob Zuma was jailed for contempt of court. Current president Cyril Rampathosa has described the unrest as unprecedented in post apartheid South Africa.

The worst violence has been concentrated in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which is due to stage the second and third Tests. The administration in Cape Town, which is staging at least the Lions’ next three games, is redoubling its security efforts by putting on extra police patrols while some shopping malls have closed. The Lions will receive a police escort from their base in Hermanus to the Cape Town Stadium where they will face a South Africa ‘A’ side containing 11 World Cup winning Springboks.

Against a backdrop of the country’s political unrest and devastating third wave, sport can appear to be a trivial concern. However, according to Springbok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick the unrest actually increases the significance of the Lions series. In an increasingly fractured country, the Springboks were able to unite the Rainbow Nation in winning the 2019 World Cup under black captain Siya Kolisi.

Stick hopes that a successful Lions series can have a similarly inspiring effect. “We are actually living in a sad time currently from what we can see on the news and social media,” Stick explained. “One of the main reasons for us as Springboks is to give hope and add smiles to faces. We will never forget when we won the World Cup, people of all colours – pink, black, brown and yellow – we were only speaking one language: rugby. Everyone was happy. That’s the kind of hope we want to build.

South Africa's flanker and captain Siya Kolisi

Credit: AFP

“If our job is to get an opportunity to unite country then that is what we will aim for. We have an opportunity to play the Lions and show South Africa once we work together and spread positive energy, anything is possible and can achieve what we set our minds to as a nation.”

Meanwhile, tensions are rising within the Springbok camp after the Lions categorically rejected Rassie Erasmus’ plea to play South Africa A for a second time.  

The Springbok players are understood to be highly frustrated at how their preparations were disrupted by a mass Covid-19 outbreak that resulted in the squad being locked in their hotel rooms for a week. Having played just one game since winning the 2019 World Cup – a 40-9 win against Georgia on July 2 – the players fear that they will enter the Lions series severely undercooked. Hence, the match against South Africa ‘A’ team, which is supposed to be a developmental team, has effectively become a fourth Test.

With his players keen for a further tune-up, director of rugby Erasmus saying that he would “beg” Gatland to replay Wednesday night’s match on Saturday. However, the Lions are determined to keep to the original schedule which will see them play the Stormers on July 17 in their final warm-up match.

British and Irish Lions squad

“Gats felt that the schedule is the schedule,” Neil Jenkins, the assistant coach, said. “We’re meant to be playing the Stormers on on Saturday, or we’re meant to be anyway – and they deserve the opportunity to play against us. It’s once every four years for our boys but it’s once every 12 for the countries that we tour. As far as I’m concerned, it’s South Africa A tomorrow and the Stormers on Saturday."

Without the Lions’ agreement, Erasmus has been left scrambling to find alternative opponents and are set to face the Blues Bulls, who had to cancel their own fixture against the Lions because of a Covid outbreak. There is understood to be considerable disquiet within the Lions’ hierarchy at how Erasmus implied they were risking another outbreak by facing the Stormers instead of South Africa A. He also revealed that Lions tour captain Alun Wyn Jones was in line to make a sensational return this week before the Lions had made a decision on his fitness.

There still remain questions over how the Springboks suffered such a large Covid outbreak which resulted in 26 positive tests, including 14 players. On Monday, Erasmus attempted to point the blame on Georgia, insisting their infections only started after that match. However, local reports have suggested that the South Africa players left their biosecure bubble for coffees prior to the match against Georgia, whose head coach Levan Maisashvili remains in hospital in a serious condition.