Pressing ahead with the 2021 Britannico & Irish Lions tour was always going to be a calculated risk but its ongoing viability is now teetering on the brink. This is a potentially strong Lions squad but, despite this latest comfortable provincial victory at Ellis Park, the accelerating third wave of Covid-19 infections sweeping across southern Africa is emerging as their most daunting opponent.
As the SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux correctly stressed there are rather more pressing local concerns than games of rugby being disrupted but the chaos caused by two positive coronavirus tests inside the Lions’ supposedly bio-secure bubble, forcing eight withdrawals from the originally selected Lions 23, clearly poses a major threat to this tour running its full course.
It is not simply the potential knock-on effects for the Lions’ itinerary, with the next tour fixture against the Bulls in Pretoria this Saturday having already bitten the dust. While the Lions’ managing director Ben Calveley is still sticking to a “one game at a time” mantra, the integrity of the all-important Test series will be compromised if the Lions coaches cannot use all their selected ingredients.
With Wales’s Liam Williams, Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies, Ireland’s Tadhg Beirne and Conor Murray, Scotland’s Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris and England’s Anthony Watson all unable to be involved, Warren Gatland had no option but to name a reshuffled 7-1 bench with Finn Russell the only recognised backline replacement
It was not even clear until very late in the afternoon that the game would be able to proceed and, given the circumstances, the players who did take the field deserve credit for the composure shown in tricky circumstances. The most obvious beneficiaries were the former Springbok U20 wing Duhan Van der Merwe who scored a hat-trick of tries on the left wing, and the prolific Josh Adams who also added another trio to his growing collection.
Owen Farrell, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Josh Navidi, Sam Simmonds, Elliot Daly and the replacement prop Rory Sutherland all contributed to another half-century win.
Louis Rees-Zammit and Bundee Aki also made it on to the scoresheet while Russell’s goal-kicking was another plus. The Sharks, relocated up from coastal Durban to the altitude of Johannesburg, were made to look distinctly toothless from the outset. Within three minutes Adams, wearing 15, had skipped over for his sixth try in three Lions games courtesy of two nice offloads and a fine break-out from Daly then helped to establish the field position from which a long pass from Simmonds put Van der Merwe over in the left corner.
The 26-year-old Scotland winger, originally from George in the Western Cape, owed his second to a well-judged Farrell kick ahead and a glaring lack of Sharks backfield cover. The Lions scrum was enjoying rather less joy but, on this occasion, it mattered little with Aki crashing over just before half-time after Cowan-Dickie had made initial ground.
A 26-0 down there would normally have been no realistic way back for the Sharks despite the energy of the lively Werner Kok and a nice try finished by their back-row forward James Venter. The Lions’ enforced reshuffle at least offered a glimmer of hope but the alertness and pace of Adams brought the Welsh winger a second score before his compatriot Rees-Zammit sprinted clear for his side’s sixth try. At no stage did their opponents look likely to deny the Lions a 60th win in their last 63 non-Test fixtures in South Africa.
The details of this game, anche se, will soon be overtaken by events. Some of these Lions players cannot be expected to play three games in eight days, with the esteemed former coach Sir Ian McGeechan suggesting it would now be simpler for the current management not to play a game this weekend. Maybe, but what if the South Africa A fixture cannot subsequently go ahead on Wednesday or only does so against dramatically weakened opponents. Everywhere you look there are potentially worrying cracks appearing.
The longer the tour lasts, on the flipside, the greater the chance of clawing back some TV and sponsorship income which is the primary reason the squad flew south in the first place. The cash-strapped South African union badly needs the income to stay afloat, hence this slightly desperate last throw of the dice: staging an event which revolves squarely around travelling supporters in echoing, empty stadiums in the middle of a pandemic. That sizeable gamble is in increasing danger of backfiring.