The British & Irish Lions have insisted their tour of South Africa will not be derailed despite a Covid-19 outbreak on Wednesday, hours before their match against the Sharks.
The Springboks, meanwhile, cancelled their fixture against Georgia because of outbreaks in both camps. But despite the turmoil the Lions’ managing director, Ben Calveley, insisted the intention was to continue with the tour as planned.
The Lions confirmed that one player and one member of staff had tested positive and after identifying 12 close contacts – including eight members of the squad – made a flurry of last-minute changes to the 23 to face the Sharks. The match had been plunged into serious doubt when a Lions member of staff recorded a positive lateral flow test with the squad having to isolate and await the results of further PCR tests.
An earlier Lions statement suggested those results needed to be negative in order for the match to go ahead, but despite the two positives the tourists confirmed it would less than two hours before kick-off.
Doubts remain over the rest of the tour, however, and increasingly questions are being asked as to whether it should continue. When asked if it was a good idea to be proceeding with the tour, Calveley told Sky Sports: “We certainly think it is. The medical advisory group contains independent virologists and infectious disease experts on that group and their recommendation is that the match can proceed.
“So we see it as a positive that we are showing that we can overcome all the challenges that face us and we are determined to make sure we can put a tour on for the players, the fans and for all of our friends here in South Africa. We’re here in South Africa and our intention is to get the games over the line in South Africa. At the moment there is no intention to deviate from that agreed schedule.
“We are in a secure, tightly controlled bubble environment but what’s absolutely the case and we have seen it in sport around the world is that no bubble is entirely impenetrable. That’s why we set up our medical advisory group so we can take advice from the experts whether it is OK to proceed with matches like this. We are really pleased that they have said this is OK to proceed.”
Calveley also revealed that not all members of the touring party had been fully vaccinated, raising further safety concerns over continuing with the series. “Nearly all the Lions party have been double jabbed,” he said. “There are people in the Lions bubble that haven’t been double jabbed. The vast majority, the very high majority, have been double jabbed.”
South Africa admitted defeat regarding their second Test against Georgia on Friday after outbreaks in both camps. The Springboks confirmed they had recorded 12 positive cases, Georgia six, and to mitigate the risk of further infection the match was cancelled. At the very least it leaves South Africa going into the Test series having played just once in more than 600 days – since the 2019 World Cup final.
The Lions’ tour match against the Bulls on Saturday has already been postponed and while there is the possibility it could be rescheduled later in the tour, or an alternative opponent for Warren Gatland’s side could be found, there was no official confirmation on Wednesday night. Next Wednesday the Lions are due to play a South Africa A side in Cape Town but that side was expected to largely be made up of players from the Covid-hit Springboks.
“In the context of the loss of life and economic damage that Covid and this third wave are wreaking, the cancellation of a rugby match is pretty trivial,” said the SA Rugby chief executive, Jurie Roux. “But it is still a major disappointment for the many stakeholders who have invested so much time, energy and resources into making these matches happen.
“I especially feel for the fans and players, and for our visitors from Georgia who travelled here at relatively short notice to take on the series, which has now been cut short. We’ve not been able to interact with them because of the biosecure environments, but I’d like to thank them publicly for their support.
“We continue to plan for the Springboks’ re-emergence from isolation and the completion of the Test series but in the short-term we wish a speedy recovery for those who have been infected.”