EDITORIAL: The timing of British Lions’ tour could not be worse
Crushed by waves of Covid and unrest, the country hosting the Lions isn’t doing its best marketing job
Hindsight is a marvellous superpower, and one much in evidence as the countdown begins to the first rugby Test match between the Springboks and British & Irish Lions in a little over a week.
There is no disputing that the timing of this much-anticipated sporting event, which only takes place every 12 years, has turned out to be terrible. Not only has it coincided with the peak of the third — and in many ways most challenging — wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, but SA has chosen to reveal the most repulsive of its ugly sides just as the eyes of the sporting world are focused on us.
The Covid- and lockdown-battered SA tourism and hospitality industry was never going to benefit much materially from a Lions tour with games played in empty stadiums and foreign visitors few and far between, but the marketing opportunity to entice post-pandemic tourists should have been worth something.
Until, that is, instead of African sunsets and game reserve safaris, the reports and images beamed back to the UK and Ireland became dominated by hospitals bursting at the seams with Covid-19 patients, a Springbok squad decimated by the virus and in quarantine, and major shopping centres being looted and burnt by rampaging mobs, with the SA government apparently powerless to stop it.
As recently as a couple of months ago, it was by no means certain that the 2021 Lions tour to SA would go ahead as planned. There was a strong push for it to be postponed or for the games to be moved to the UK, where they seemed more likely to take place in front of fans. But postponement was impractical due to packed international Test schedules, and with the second Covid-19 wave having subsided and SA’s belated vaccination programme starting to get off the ground, there seemed some justification for hope.
So much for that; fate has no truck with hope. Like the organisers of the already once postponed Tokyo Olympics, having taken the plunge for better or worse, SA Rugby has had to watch its worst nightmare unfold before it. With the benefit of hindsight, this tour should not have taken place. But hindsight is annoyingly scarce when it’s needed most — before key decisions are made — and with the die cast, neither the game’s administrators nor the teams have much choice but to make the best of poor circumstances.
Barring further calamity — a statement that can no longer be made with the confidence of the past — next Saturday’s Test will take place as scheduled in Cape Town. It will be one to remember, albeit for the wrong reasons. A fan-free stadium and undercooked Springbok team is unlikely to make for a spectacle that will delight SA fans, but it will be a rugby Test on SA soil, the first in more months than many Covid-befuddled brains can remember.
That has some value in itself; a reminder that this too shall pass. Stand-in Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus (real coach Jacques Nienaber is among those having to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid-19) is confident that most of the SA players who are in quarantine will be back in time for Saturday’s game, though the loss of game time and contact practice will doubtless take their toll.
With so much uncertainty still surrounding both the course of the third Covid wave and the waves of violent unrest and looting that have weighed so heavily on Gauteng, the jury must remain out on whether the second and third Tests can take place in the economic hub at the end of the month and in early August. Given that television revenues are the only real fan-based source of income for this tour, it would seem logical to play these games elsewhere in the country if the civil unrest in particular is not firmly under control by then, with Cape Town and Gqeberha the most obvious contenders.
As luck would have it, playing all three Tests at sea level rather than at Gauteng’s energy-sapping altitude will remove the one remaining advantage the Springboks may have had over the visitors. Then again, luck has been as scarce as hindsight is common in SA of late.
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