Lions consider fourth Test against South Africa as support grows for home series

Daniel Schofield
·8 min read
British & Irish Lions tour crest — Lions consider fourth Test against South Africa as support grows for home series - PA
British & Irish Lions tour crest — Lions consider fourth Test against South Africa as support grows for home series - PA

The Lions are considering including a fourth Test match in the series against South Africa where support for staging the tour in the British Isles is gaining traction.

Rassie Erasmus, the South African Rugby Union’s director of rugby, has told leading coaches in the country that moving the tour from South Africa, which is unlikely to be able to host crowds, to the home nations is the most financially appealing option on the table. Telegraph Sport understands that the Springboks also intend to bring their ‘A’ team rather than their franchises to provide opposition in the midweek games.

Hosting the tour in the United Kingdom is increasingly seen as the leading option after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Monday that sporting crowds will return this summer in time for the tour. However, the Lions board has not yet reached a consensus with some traditionalists still preferring the concept of a real tour, whether behind closed doors in South Africa behind closed doors or to Australia. A final decision will be made next month.

The waters muddied further on Tuesday as the Scottish government failed to provide a date for when it believes society will return to normal as Johnson had done on Monday. The Lions are due to play their first match against Japan at Murrayfield on June 26. There is already virtually no prospect of the Lions playing a match in Dublin in front of crowds with the Irish government much further behind in its vaccination schedule.

This is why the Lions powerbokers want to leave making a final decision as late as possible but time is now running out. After announcing the destination of the tour, the Lions are likely to confirm details of the itinerary a couple of weeks later. They are still committed to delivering eight games as per their original agreement with Sky Sports and their sponsorship partners. This may now be expanded to a four Test series against the world champions Springboks, which would prove a further money-spinner.

With so much uncertainty abounding, the Lions are set to be adopt the option which offers the greatest reliability as well as profitability, which is why they have approached the British Government to underwrite the “home tour”. The approach was made weeks ago to provide a financial guarantee should matches be forced behind closed doors because of new Covid outbreaks. The Lions would need a guarantee of at least 25 per cent capacity crowds to make a home tour financially viable. While the request will be passed on to the Treasury, the optics of the Government providing a further bailout to rugby union on top of its Winter Sports Survival Package will be deeply unpopular among other sports.

Iain Henderson of the Lions is held up over the tryline during the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour match between the Chiefs and the British & Irish Lions - Getty Images
Iain Henderson of the Lions is held up over the tryline during the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour match between the Chiefs and the British & Irish Lions - Getty Images

Telegraph Sport understands that the Lions board has yet to receive details of the financial guarantees that the Australian government have informally promised, which could yet prove critical to the final decision. Moving the tour to Australia, however, is the least popular option in South Africa where there is a growing acceptance that it will not stage the Lions tour.

Lions home tour explained: How would it work, could stadiums be full and are there alternative plans?

The British and Irish Lions hosting South Africa could prove an acceptable compromise to avoid the sporting and financial cost of a cancelled series, and here Daniel Schofield looks into the detail of what that unusual solution involves.

What was the original back-up plan?

Around the turn of the year, the Lions started to ramp up their contingency planning for the tour to South Africa with the host nation far behind the United Kingdom on the rollout of its Covid-19 vaccination plan. With the prospect of the tour taking place behind closed doors in South Africa, the proposal was to stage the three Tests at Twickenham, the Principality Stadium in Cardiff and the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, with Murrayfield already hosting a warm-up match against Japan in June. Moving the tour from South Africa would incur significant financial penalties, not least from lead sponsors such as Castle Lager, but this could be counterbalanced by full houses in the British Isles. Football stadiums could also be used to host the warm-up matches.

How has the government announcement on lifting lockdown restrictions affected this?

It has made a hypothetical construct a lot more appealing with the tantalising promise of full venues. All four home unions have suffered terrible financial losses because of the pandemic. The South Africa Rugby Union is in even worse shape with the Springboks yet to play a single Test since the 2019 Rugby World Cup final and had been relying upon the bonanza of a Lions tour to help it return an even keel. A home Lions tour can only work financially if there are large crowds, otherwise it will lose too much money from its reneged sponsorship deals. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that normal life should return on June 21 by the earliest could in theory allow the Lions to play the entire tour on home soil to stands filled to the brim.

So why have the Lions asked for the government to underwrite the home tour?

Because of the “in theory” part of the last sentence. We all remember previous government hits such as there will be a “significant return to normality” by last Christmas. Even with the best will in the world and the success of the vaccine programme, the government has only provided a roadmap that a mutant Covid-19 variant could send hurtling down a wrong turn. With so much uncertainty, the Lions need some form of safety net that the tour could not turn into a financial disaster. The Lions have not requested that the full costs of the tour for capacity crowds will be underwritten. For a home tour to work, the Telegraph Sport understands that crowds would need to be at least 25 percent capacity of stadiums such as Twickenham. Despite already providing significant assistance to rugby union as a sport, the government are considering the Lions’ request. Not only would a Lions tour on home soil provide a significant financial stimulus but it would hopefully provide a feelgood factor to a country in desperate need of a lift.

Britain's sporting summer with fans
Britain's sporting summer with fans

What other barriers are there to a home tour?

For starters, Johnson’s announcement only applies to England. Tellingly in her own address, the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has not mentioned a date in which all legal restrictions will be lifted which would be needed to enable the return of capacity crowds. With Scottish shops set to open two weeks later than the ones south of the border it seems she is taking an extra cautious approach. The Welsh government has so far not set a date for outlining its own roadmap to recovery. Meanwhile, Ireland is much further behind with its vaccination programme than the United Kingdom is so the chances of a Test match being staged in front of a crowd at the Aviva Stadium in July already seem remote. Again any further Covid flare-ups and ensuing restrictions in England, Scotland or Wales would imperil the tour.

Logistically it would be a nightmare for Lions organisers to sell tickets for any Tests when they do not know what the capacity would be just weeks out from the tour. Tests at Twickenham would generate the most money for the organisers but while the Rugby Football Union believes it could safely stage a large capacity crowd there is less confidence in the transport network. If any kind of social distancing measures remain in place it would be very hard to square these with the packed trains to Twickenham.

It is also worth acknowledging that the majority of this is being viewed through a Lions prism but the South Africa Rugby Union has an equal say in the destination of the tour. While its overriding priority remains a profitable, safe tour, it may view the trade-offs of switching to the British Isles as unpalatable.

Are there any other solutions?

The Lions board has the unenviable task of weighing up the pros and cons of three options of going to South Africa, staying in the British Isles or transferring the tour to Australia. Originally it was due to make a decision in January, but now it won’t be until March as the powerbrokers want it to leave it as late as possible to confirm the destination. Once this is decided then much of the planning for the detail of venues etc will really begin in earnest.

If it goes to the United Kingdom one suggestion that has been made would be to keep the tour in one city to mitigate some of the risk associated with travelling through different government jurisdictions. A Lions “tour” of the British Isles is already an oxymoron so would there really be that much more resistance if the tour was confined to a single city? With the Aviva Stadium almost certainly out of the equation and Sturgeon’s announcement cooling the prospect of Murrayfield being available, the most likely candidates would be Twickenham and Cardiff. Twickenham is the bigger money-spinner but Cardiff, if it is fully open, has slightly fewer issues with public transport and is located close to The Vale of Glamorgan, the former home of ex-Wales head coach and Lions boss Warren Gatland, a stomping ground he knows better than any.