Can the British and Irish Lions tour continue? Warren Gatland’s reaction, Covid update and what it means for Georgia v Scotland

Coronavirus is threatening to bring the British and Irish Lions’ tour to South Africa to a premature end but Warren Gatland remains bullishly optimistic.

Josh Navidi impressed on his Lions debut against the Sharks at Ellis Park. Picture: Themba Hadebe/AP
Josh Navidi impressed on his Lions debut against the Sharks at Ellis Park. Picture: Themba Hadebe/AP

The Lions head coach is confident the Test series with the Springboks can go ahead despite both camps now being hit by a spate of Covid-19 cases.

The tourists were due to play the Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday but the game has been postponed due to positive tests in the South African side’s squad.

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The first Test is scheduled for July 24 in Cape Town, with the second and third due to take place in Johannesburg on the following two Saturdays.

Finn Russell was a late call-up to the British & Irish Lions squad to play Sharks after the Covid outbreak. Picture: Steve Haag/PA Wire

What has happened?

Covid-19 outbreaks have laid waste to the weekend’s fixtures and have deepened the uncertainty surrounding the tour. South Africa’s entire squad are isolating for the second time after 12 positive tests were returned from players and management, including head coach Jacques Nienaber, while Georgia have also been hit. The Georgians were due to play the Springboks on Friday night but the match has now been cancelled. The Lions’ match against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday has also been called off after it became clear the Bulls could not field a team after coronavirus infected four players.

So the Lions have escaped the virus?

It appeared that way – until Wednesday when one player and one member of the management team returned positive PCR tests. The knock-on effect has been dramatic with eight players and four members of staff forced into isolation. The Sharks match on Wednesday night started an hour later than scheduled and the Lions were forced to make eight changes to their matchday 23, seven of them backs. It leaves Gatland’s tourists in a precarious position.

Zander Fagerson made his first start for the Lions in the 54-7 win over the Cell C Sharks in Johannesburg. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Can the tour still go ahead?

As it stands, yes. The Test series between the Lions and Springboks is still 16 days away and while all tour fixtures are crucial, it has been made clear that saving the money-generating centre-piece of the event is the ultimate objective. But it has undoubtedly reached crisis point with organisers working on contingency plans knowing that if Covid continues to spread throughout the squads, cancellation becomes a genuine prospect.

Why are the Lions in South Africa?

A question being asked now more than ever. Once the alternatives of hosting the tour in Australia or the UK or delaying it by a year were rejected as unworkable, the original plan of an expedition to South Africa was resurrected. At the time the hosts were weathering the pandemic well, but their third wave has resulted in a hard lockdown that includes school closures, a curfew, alcohol ban and travel restrictions – all while their health system buckles. Given the current situation, the decision to press ahead with the tour made in April appears a folly.

What happens now?

The Lions are now hoping to play the Sharks again on Saturday in Pretoria, but it hinges on PCR testing over the next two days. Organisers are hoping to reschedule the Bulls game, but finding space in a packed schedule is the challenge. Beyond the weekend, the plan to relocate the Lions and South Africa to Cape Town – where the pandemic has less of a foothold – may have to be expedited in the hope of saving the event from collapse.

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What is Warren Gatland saying?

The coach is confident the Test series against South Africa will proceed as scheduled despite outbreaks of coronavirus in both camps. Gatland said the tourists had been “very vigilant” in observing Covid protocols and thinks the virus may have come into the Lions camp via staff in the team hotel. Nevertheless, he thinks the problem can be contained. “I honestly believe that we will have a Test series,” he said.

Could the tour be switched to the UK?

Unlikely. Ben Calveley, the Lions managing director, has played down this possibility. Speaking to Sky Sports, he said: “All the games are important, but the Test series is paramount. We’re here in South Africa and our intention is to get the games over the line in South Africa.”

How were the Scots on the Lions tour affected?

Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris were supposed to be on the bench against the Sharks on Wednesday night but dropped out of the squad shortly before the match was due to start. There was also no sign of Gregor Townsend, the Lions attack coach, at the game at Ellis Park. Ali Price, Finn Russell and Hamish Watson were all drafted into the matchday 23 as late call-ups.

What does it means for Scotland’s match in Georgia?

Scotland are due to play a Test match in Georgia on July 17 but the chances of the game going ahead are looking increasingly remote. The Scots squad have also been hit by Covid and had to cancel their Test against Romania which was due to take place this weekend, and last month’s A international against England. While the players have now completed their isolation period, the outbreak in the Georgian camp has cast fresh doubt on the fixture.

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