SA Rugby reacts swiftly to B&I Lions tour threat
REACTION: SA Rugby has moved swiftly to dismiss claims that the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour is in danger of being called off.
Media reports suggested that next year’s tour of South Africa could be delayed or cancelled entirely – as the four Home Nations battle to stay afloat financially.
The Daily Mirror claimed that the financial strain of the COVID-19 outbreak has left England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales all desperate to play both their November Tests and their remaining Six Nations fixtures that were postponed earlier this year.
Fears of bankruptcy among the Irish, Scottish and Welsh unions have reportedly led to discussions between officials about creating contingency plans to re-schedule home fixtures next year as a top priority in an effort to generate some much-needed revenue.
That would, in turn, force the 2021 Lions tour to be postponed or even scrapped entirely as the home unions scramble to stay afloat.
However, SA Rugby officials quickly poured cold water on the reports.
“While we continue to look forward to an incredible Tour by The British & Irish Lions next year, and there are no planned changes, it would be remiss of us not to explore various scenarios for a possible date change caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” an SA Rugby spokesperson told @rugby365com on Monday.
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The pandemic has left those unions – as well as all of the rugby worldwide – in a dire economic position, with The Mirror suggesting that the four nations could be looking at an £80-million deficit should those matches not go ahead.
COVID-19 has already seen plenty of rugby delayed or canned this year, with England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales’ July tours of Japan, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand under severe threat of cancellation.
The British and Irish nations are also scheduled to host the likes of the All Blacks, Wallabies, Springboks, Argentina, Japan, Fiji and Tonga in November in the same international window that the four delayed Six Nations fixtures are set to take place.
While it’s still unclear whether these matches will go ahead, The Mirror reports that those home fixtures can generate between £4-million to £8-million for the host side, as much as four times the amount each Home Nation can make from a Lions tour.
Adding to the dilemma is the predicament surrounding the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, which have been pushed back a year to clash with the scheduled Lions tour.
That will force players from South Africa and the Home Nations to weigh up whether to chase an Olympic gold medal in sevens, or to pursue their Lions ambitions.
A delayed tour, however, could free up players from both camps to challenge for both campaigns, although that would complicate contractual matters with Lions head coach Warren Gatland.
The former Ireland and Wales boss was granted a specific one-year sabbatical clause to take charge of a third consecutive Lions tour as part of his four-year deal with the Chiefs in Super Rugby.
The postponement of the eight-match tour, though, would throw a spanner in the works – not only for Gatland and both sets of players, but also for the estimated 35,000 Lions fans who were expected to have travelled to South Africa for the series.
Former Wales and Lions great Phil Bennett told The Mirror it would be “heartbreaking” if the upcoming tour was forced into cancellation, but stressed that a Lions series would be no good if it was to the detriment of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
“We are talking about the survival of the game itself. Those nations have to get money in through hosting international games in order to keep the game going in those countries,” he said.
“If the unions go bankrupt, then the grassroots don’t get looked after and rugby at that level could simply die.
“People in Wales are already talking about dozens of clubs disappearing because there is no income coming in.”
* Additional reporting by RugbyPass