THE Lions are devising contingency plans for an alternative tour this summer at stadia in Newcastle, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dublin and London. Non-rugby venues earmarked for what would be the first home Lions tour include the 52,305 all-seater St James’s Park on Tyneside, Villa Park (42,749) and Croke Park, the Gaelic Athletic Association’s steepling shrine with a capacity greater than Twickenham’s.
Amid increasing fears of their tour to South Africa being wiped out by the Covid pandemic, the Lions and Springboks hope to salvage the series by staging it in Britain and Ireland over the same sixweek slot from late June to early August. The proposal is being drawn up in the fervent hope that by then crowds, however limited, will be cleared to attend. The growing prospect of the tour going ahead in South Africa without crowds has forced the Lions to make a decision within the next few weeks instead of delaying it until after the Six Nations.
“There are three options,’’ sources have told The Rugby Paper. “The tour goes ahead over there or it is played here. And if that can’t happen, it will be cancelled.
“Postponing it for a year is a non-starter because of the knock-on effect it would have on the World Cup. This is a very fluid situation, changing almost day by day but at least there is now a practical alternative, if we can get crowds because the Lions can’t play without them.’’
The Rugby Paper understands that discussions between the Lions committee, representing the four Home Unions, and the Springboks are at an advanced stage. The alternative tour would start in late June with the World Cup holders against the Barbarians at Twickenham, the day after the Premiership final. And with so much action set for this summer it’s a great time to get to know how to bet on sports events.
The Lions are scheduled to play Japan at Murrayfield on that same weekend. Vaccination issues in South Africa make it virtually impossible for the Stormers, Sharks and Pretoria-based Bulls to transfer their fixtures to British venues.
Instead the organisers are considering alternative midweek fixtures…against the North at St James’ Park and the Midlands at Villa Park. The Boks played before near-capacity crowds at both football grounds during the 2015 World Cup, edging Scotland in a thriller on Tyneside and beating Samoa in Birmingham.
If, as seems inevitable, the summer tour cannot take place, the Lions will hope to be in a position to confirm alternative Test venues with the three-match series finishing at Twickenham. Wales and Ireland would stage the first and second, in Cardiff and Dublin respectively. The Lions prefer Croke Park, home of the GAA, which has room for 30,000 more than the Aviva Stadium, home of Irish rugby.
The IRFU rented the towering Dublin venue during the reconstruction of Lansdowne Road, a move which elevated the thumping home win over England in 2007 to one of the greatest occasions in the long history of Anglo-Irish sport.
In a covid-free world Croke Park’s capacity of 82,300 would smash all boxoffice records for a Lions Test match. It already holds the record for the biggest crowd in the European Cup – 82,208 for Leinster’s defeat of Munster in 2009.
By PETER JACKSON