Plan to switch British and Irish Lions tour to Australia aborted but hope grows of South Africa hosting

Gavin Mairs
·3 min read
Warren Gatland - GETTY
Warren Gatland - GETTY

The prospect of the British and Irish Lions proceeding with their tour of South Africa as scheduled this summer remains a live option after the board requested more information and time before making a final call.

The only firm decision taken by the eight-man board, which is chaired by Jason Leonard, was to rule out the option of relocating the tour to Australia.

Rugby Australia had made a bold offer to host the eight-match series Down Under, including the promise of capacity crowds for three Test matches to be played at major stadiums in Perth, Sydney and Brisbane, given the almost zero community transmission of the virus in the country.

However, it is understood that Rugby Australia’s offer of a minimum guarantee to cover the costs of relocating the tour and cover the loss of revenue in the event of a short-notice lockdown was not enough to make it a viable option. There was also concern about the guarantee of capacity crowds.

RA had been dealing directly with the South African Rugby Union, as tour hosts, but the Lions board also took the decision to turn down the offer.

The Lions board will now meet again next week as it awaits a decision by the Government about whether the Treasury will offer to underwrite the costs of relocating the tour to the United Kingdom.

A decision is not expected until next week at the earliest, and one source said that the signs from the Treasury were not yet optimistic, given the demands from other sports and industries for government support.

The Lions have drawn up detailed contingency plans for hosting the series in the UK, however the costs are considerable and would require minimum crowds of 25 per cent capacity to make it viable and, given the uncertainty still attached to the road map out of the lockdown, without Government support it is unlikely to be possible.

Time is also against the Lions for a home series, given the major logistical challenge of putting on a major global event within a matter of months. It is understood the Lions have approached CSM, the sport and entertainment agency, who already look after some of their commercial contracts, about providing the resources to event-manage the project but it is thought that the costs are significant.

Date set for return of grassroots rugby
Date set for return of grassroots rugby

The fact that the option of proceeding with the tour as scheduled was not taken off the table despite the Covid challenges was seen as significant by some sources, following the positive news from South Africa this week about their infection rates and relaxing of lockdown restrictions.

If the Lions proceed with the tour to South Africa, even if the matches have to be played behind closed doors, it would offer the least-risky financial option as all the contracts are in place and broadcasters Sky Sports told the board in January that was their preferred option.

Many former Lions, including John Spencer, who was tour manager in New Zealand four years ago, believe the tour should go ahead, even if it means postponing by a year, in order to proceed with the ethos of the tourists.