Lions rule out Australia and may yet play in empty South African venues

The fate of the British & Irish Lions tour this summer remains up in the air with a final decision having been deferred until next week. Lions officials, however, have ruled out any prospect of relocating the tour to Australia, and shifting it to the UK and Ireland will only happen if the government agrees to underwrite any potential losses in the event of another Covid-19 surge.

Until now staging the tour behind closed doors in South Africa in July and August had been viewed as a last resort but organisers may yet be left with little other option. Holding the matches in empty stadiums would be a passion killer on many fronts but it would enable the three-Test series to proceed as originally scheduled.

Postponing the tour until 2022 would be far more financially attractive if crowds were able to attend but there can be no absolute guarantee that Covid-19 will have fully disappeared by then. The home unions also have their own tours scheduled as part of their build-up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.

France could have their star centre Virimi Vakatawa back available for the Six Nations game against England at Twickenham next week. The Racing 92 midfielder has not featured in this season’s tournament to date but has made a faster than expected recovery from a knee injury.

Racing are due to face Toulon this weekend and if Vakatawa can prove his fitness after being out for six weeks he may come back into contention for the England game. The fly-half Romain Ntamack is also on the comeback trail after breaking his jaw in December and will start at 10 for Toulouse against Brive. The scrum-half Antoine Dupont has also tested negative for Covid which suggests he should also be back available to face England.

Given the recent Covid-19 issues within the French squad the management will be delighted to have some potential reinforcements for a fixture that has now been formally approved by the French government. Following a meeting between the French Rugby Federation president, Bernard Laporte, the education minister, Jean‑Michel Blanquer, and the sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu, it has been confirmed that Les Bleus’ participation is not in doubt.

Maracineanu had threatened to withdraw France because of the outbreak in which 12 players and four backroom staff, including the head coach, Fabien Galthié, tested positive for Covid‑19 and prompted the postponement of the Scotland game last weekend. That fixture now looks set to be rearranged for Friday 26 March.

England’s head coach, Eddie Jones, will also be keeping a keen eye on the return of Sam Underhill for Bath against Exeter for the first time since the flanker was forced out of Six Nations contention with a hip problem. Underhill has been missed but is back in a Bath pack that also features Beno Obano, released by England to gain more game time, and Wales’s Taulupe Faletau. Scotland’s Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray both start for Exeter, with Wales’s Tomas Francis on the bench.

England, however, have chosen not to release Paolo Odogwu and Ollie Lawrence back to Wasps and Worcester respectively.

The Rugby Football Union has published its latest return to rugby road map for community clubs, with adult and age-group games under adapted rules allowed from 26 April.

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