Il britannico & Irish Lions tour of South Africa has been plunged further into disarray after the match against the Bulls on Saturday was postponed and the Springboks were hit with another 11 Covid cases – including the head coach, Jacques Nienaber – raising more fears over the Test series.
On Tuesday it emerged the Bulls had recorded five positive cases and, taking into account close contacts, it was determined that the match in Pretoria on Saturday could not go ahead. The Lions were scrambling on Tuesday night to find a different opponent, while the Bulls match could yet be rearranged, but the postponement comes as a huge disruption for the tour.
South Africa meanwhile have seen a surge in Covid cases while their opponents on Friday night, Georgia, have recorded four. That match has not yet been called off but is hanging by a thread, leaving the Springboks likely to be badly undercooked for the Test series. Doubts remain as to whether the world champions will be able to face the Lions, tuttavia, with the series due to begin on 24 luglio.
On Monday the entire 46-man South Africa squad was put into isolation after the Sale Sharks second-row Lood de Jager tested positive. The hope was that the outbreak would be contained, as was the case last week, but four more players – Marvin Orie, Frans Steyn, Handré Pollard and Frans Malherbe – six members of staff, including Nienaber, and a masseuse all tested positive on Tuesday.
“These positive results are a setback and have underlined the danger of transmissibility of the Delta variant,” the SA Rugby chief executive, Jurie Roux, disse. “The Springboks’ second Test against Georgia is now in serious doubt, but we will wait for the [medical advisory group] to consider the data and we will make the final decision [on Wednesday]. The priority is to maintain the integrity of the Test series and we will continue to focus on that.”
The Lions have not yet recorded a positive case and the match against the Sharks on Wednesday will go ahead as planned in Johannesburg. The squad were due to head to Cape Town after the match against the Blues for fixtures against a South Africa A side next Wednesday, the Stormers the following Saturday and the first Test a week later. The current schedule has the Lions then returning to Johannesburg – which is in the Gauteng region badly hit by South Africa’s third Covid wave – for the second two Tests but talks have been held over staying in Cape Town for the duration of the tour.
If the Lions are unable to hastily rearrange another fixture on Saturday it would be a significant blow to Gatland because he would have even less chance to cast his eye over his players than planned. Already fears are growing that the Lions will be underprepared given the relative weakness of the provincial sides, who are not able to select their Springboks.
The outbreak in the Georgia camp is significant in that sense because without it, The Lelos would have appeared to be candidates to take the place of the Bulls and face the Lions on Saturday, assuming the match on Friday is off. That is still a possibility, albeit unlikely, if the outbreak in the Georgia squad is contained.
Speaking before the Bulls match was officially postponed, the Lions defence coach Steve Tandy said: “You could have the best-laid plans but things move really quickly and things can change quickly. It is just being prepared for whatever comes our way at whatever period of time. We will just adapt as we go along.”
For South Africa, nel frattempo, the situation looks desperate. The win against Georgia last Friday was their first Test in more than 600 days – since beating England in the World Cup final – and it appears unlikely they will play again before the Test series against the Lions is due to start.
Tom Curry, who makes his first appearance of the Lions tour on Wednesday, disse: “Everyone is talking about how big it is for the Lions but for the South African players, what is it once every 12 anni?, it’s a huge occasion for them so there’s a massive understanding for them. It’s not people’s fault if they catch Covid. So yeah, huge understanding for them.”