THERE has been a lot said over the last week about the prospects of the 2021 Lions tour of South Africa going ahead after the sharp increase in Covid infections in the UK and South Africa, and the identification of new strains.
However, it is very difficult to predict what will happen week-to-week, let alone five months from now when the tour is due to start.
When it comes to the Lions my attitude is that if it is at all possible, the show must go on. For me, the Lions is one of the greatest clubs in the world, if not the greatest.
I want the Lions to continue forever because of the wonderful experiences I’ve had as a player, and after that as an ambassador and broadcaster – and if I do not go on tour in any of those capacities, then I would always go as a supporter.
Nobody wants to see the Lions forced into a bubble, and most of us accept that the tour would definitely not be the same without the red army of supporters, but let’s look at how we can make the best of the bad situation forced on our sport by the pandemic.
There are very good financial reasons for the tour to go ahead in South Africa even without travelling fans, because there will still be a massive television audience for it, and sponsors will get some of the exposure they want.
There is also no escaping that it comes at a price. For a fan, the Lions on tour is one of the best all-round experiences they can get and supporters will be devastated if years of planning and saving are affected. There’s also a big penalty for the host nation, because Lions tours usually bring them a great economic boost from the spending by tens of thousands of supporters.
No-one is pretending that watching a Lions series on TV is the same for fans as being there to watch the live action and savour the atmosphere, but it is much better than having one of Rugby Union’s great events disappearing from sight.
Even without spectators in stadiums the Lions would still enjoy the tour, because they are playing a sport they love for a team with an incredible legacy. In addition, they are pro sportsmen who are being paid to play, and they have a job to do.
If Lions fans are not allowed to be present at the matches, they will be desperate to see rugby’s greatest touring team in action again – especially against the reigning world champion Springboks – even if it is only on their TV screens.
I am all for changing and adapting in every aspect of life if it is proved to be for the right reasons, and that is why the idea of transferring the tour to the northern hemisphere, and the Lions playing against South Africa in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales this summer, can not be ruled out.
It would not be a Lions tour as we know it, and it would always carry an asterisk, but if that was all that could happen, that is how it would have to be – although it would probably still be in front of empty stadiums, or reduced crowds, at Twickenham, or in Cardiff, Dublin, and Edinburgh.
Few or no supporters on home soil would be bizarre, but my bet is that the players would embrace it. The circumstances might not be ideal, but the opportunity to play for the Lions usually comes along only once every four years – so, whatever the circumstances, most players will grab the opportunity.
Another option if South Africa cannot host a Lions tour in 2021 is for there to be an exchange with Australia, who are due to be the hosts in 2025.
It would have to be talked through, but the Australians have much fewer Covid cases, and have recently had crowds in stadiums for the cricket Tests against India.
The UK being among the first to start the vaccination process should also be a positive factor in being able to transfer the tour to Australia, or to stick with South Africa as the original venue.
I’m not an administrator, or a player welfare expert, but a further proposal that has been tabled is for this Lions tour to be delayed until 2022.
This suggestion could cause friction because of a potential clash with English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish preparations for the 2023 World Cup. For instance, England are scheduled to play a three Test tour of Australia, and Ireland have arranged to do the same in New Zealand.
My view is that if it’s safe for the Lions to go and play rugby this summer without the fans in South Africa, or Australia, then do it. My feeling is that although the South African Rugby Union has said previously that they do not consider the tour viable without fans, I suspect if they are faced with a scenario of playing the series, or having nothing at all, they might change their minds.
If none of those options is available, then the Lions hosting the South Africans is a last resort that I would not overlook – especially as it is important for all the Home Unions that it takes place this year.