British and Irish Lions boss defends decision to allow players to tour who are not double vaccinated

The British and Irish Lions have defended their strategy of allowing players to go on tour without being double vaccinated despite an escalating coronavirus crisis that continues to jeopardise their stay in South Africa.

Ben Calveley, the Lions managing director. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
Ben Calveley, the Lions managing director. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Ben Calveley, the Lions managing director, remains committed to playing the Test series, refusing to entertain the notion of moving the matches to the UK.

The tourists were hit by two Covid positive cases on Wednesday, forcing eight players into isolation.

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It meant the Lions had to make last-minute changes to their team to play the Sharks.

Lions prop Rory Sutherland on the charge during the win over the Sharks at Ellis Park on Wednesday. The sides will meet again at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday. Picture: Phill Magakoe/AFP

They still won comfortably, 54-7, and will play the same opponents on Saturday in Pretoria after they stepped in as replacements for the Bulls who have been struck down by Covid cases in their squad.

With the entire South Africa national squad also isolating, questions continue to be asked about the viability of the tour.

Calveley, however, insists robust procedures are in place, while admitting that some members of the tour party have not been double vaccinated.

“I think everybody has a right to make their own decision on whether or not they want to be vaccinated,” said the Lions MD.

“We have a number of strategies in place to mitigate the risk in any environment and I think it’s wrong for anyone to think that vaccination is some sort of universal panacea. I’m afraid it’s not.

“So we have an approach which is multi-layered where, as well as having the majority of the party being vaccinated, we are also exhibiting all the right behaviours that I’ve spoken about before.

“We’re getting tested three times a week if not more, we’re socially distancing, we’re well ventilated, we’re observing hand hygiene, we’re wearing masks, we’re not integrating with the public and we’re travelling very, very infrequently.”

Calveley refused to be drawn on how many of the touring party have not been double vaccinated, adding: “I don’t think we want to get into a conversation about who is and isn’t vaccinated but I’d just make the point again that the very high majority of the party are double jabbed.”

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He was adamant that persisting with the tour in a nation that is experiencing an escalating third wave of the pandemic was correct.

“We are here in South Africa. We made the decision back in March that we would make this tour work in South Africa, which I believe to be the right decision,” he said. “We are determined to make it work, and there are absolutely no plans for us to deviate from that agreed strategy.”

The good news for the Lions is that the unnamed player who tested positive on Wednesday has now returned a negative result. Should he test negative again on Friday he will be available to play in the hastily arranged second match against the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld along with six close contacts.

The other positive test in the Lions camp was from a member of the management team and he continues to isolate along with two players deemed close contacts.

While the outlook for the Lions appears slightly brighter, the entire 46-strong Springboks party are contending with a far more serious outbreak that has forced the cancellation of their second Test against Georgia on Friday.

On Sunday the Lions travel to Cape Town, where the pandemic has less of a foothold than the Gauteng region that encompasses Johannesburg and Pretoria.

They play fixtures against South Africa A, who are shaping up to be their first meaningful opposition of the tour, and the Stormers before the first Test takes place at Cape Town Stadium on July 24.

Plans to move the second and third Tests from Johannesburg to Cape Town to avoid the worst of the pandemic appear to have been put on hold, although Calveley insists contingencies are being drawn up “all the time”.

Little is likely to be gained by another overwhelming win against the Sharks, who fulfil all the anti-Covid requirements but whose resources will be severely stretched by a second outing in four days having already lost nine players to the Springboks squad.

Calveley insists the fixture has been organised to continue the Lions’ preparations for the Test series and not to honour broadcasting deals.

“We were scheduled to play a fixture on Saturday, albeit against the Bulls not the Sharks,” Calveley said.

“We came into this country to play rugby matches, not to sit in bio-secure bubbles. We want to play the matches so that we can be ready to take on the Springboks in a Test series. That was very much the driver behind the decision to go ahead on Saturday.”

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