Picture: 123RF/RADUTUTA
Picture: 123RF/RADUTUTA

The British & Irish Lions are to play two of their three Tests in Johannesburg. The trade-off‚ however‚ is that they will not play Johannesburg’s Super Rugby franchise on their eight-match tour.

They will play a Test in Cape Town‚ the first since 1997. Significantly it will be at Cape Town Stadium, with Newlands set to be decommissioned after next season.

The Boks lost 25-16 the last time they played the Lions in Cape Town and by playing two of the three Tests at altitude it is felt the Boks have a better chance of series success.

The seating capacity at Soccer City and Ellis Park, where the first and the third Tests will be played, is also better suited to the huge demand for tickets for the series.

By playing at Soccer City it is hoped Warren Gatland’s side will play in front of the largest crowd for a Lions Test since the game turned professional.

The first Test, on July 24 2021, will be played at Soccer City with a capacity of about 88,000 spectators. A sell-out crowd would be higher than the 84,188 who witnessed the series decider against the Wallabies in Sydney in 2001.

The second Test is set for Cape Town Stadium‚ while the third will be played at Ellis Park on August 7.

The combined capacity for the three Test venues is just below 205,000‚ which could make the three Tests on the 2021 tour the best-attended since professionalism‚ potentially surpassing the 192,972 people who attended the three Tests in Australia in 2013.

The tour includes weekend matches against the Bulls‚ the Sharks and the Stormers‚ and two midweek fixtures against an invitational side in Port Elizabeth and SA “A” in Nelspruit.

Rassie Erasmus‚ SA director of rugby‚ said the keenly awaited tour is a once-in-a-lifetime playing opportunity for SA players. “There are players who have been to three Rugby World Cups and finished their careers with a winner’s medal and yet never got to play against the Lions‚” said Erasmus.

“They only come around every 12 years for our players and only a few of them ever have the privilege of wearing the Springbok jersey in a Lions series.

“The Lions have not lost a series since they were last here a decade ago and they will present next-level challenge in 18 months’ time.

“Warren Gatland is a massively experienced and astute coach with a phenomenal record with the Lions, and the rugby experience for our players and public will rival that of a Rugby World Cup‚” said Erasmus.

“The Lions performed extremely well on their previous two tours [through Australia and New Zealand] and will no doubt relish the opportunity to add the Springboks’ scalp to their belt.”

The Springboks lifted the Webb Ellis Cup for the third time recently in Japan‚ with Erasmus promising that the search would now begin for consistency‚ especially with the crunch Lions tour due in just under 18 months’ time.

“It is now something like 600 days until the British & Irish Lions arrive in SA and we have already started with planning for that‚” said Erasmus.

“The Lions will operate like a well-oiled machine and we will have to work very hard to match them in every department‚ on and off the field.”

Gatland‚ whose Lions beat Australia in 2013 and drew the series with New Zealand in 2017, said: “I am absolutely thrilled with how this schedule looks.

“Touring SA is always a huge challenge‚ not only from a rugby perspective‚ but also in terms of the venues and the conditions facing the players.

“We are very comfortable that three of the games‚ two of which are Test matches‚ will be played at altitude. Our schedule falls in a way to allow us to start at sea level before building up and acclimatising to the unique environment that playing at altitude presents.

“Ensuring the team are absolutely primed for the Test matches is a critical element of any Lions tour‚ and I am confident the quality of opposition we will face in the opening weeks will get us ready to take on the Springboks.

“The Bulls‚ Sharks and Stormers are all tough sides and present different challenges‚ which is exactly what we want.

“Moreover‚ the venues we have agreed — some of which will be new to the Lions — open up the matches to a vast audience and will undoubtedly provide an unforgettable experience for the players and travelling supporters alike.

“We are very much looking forward to touring this wonderful country.”

The British & Irish Lions have toured SA on 13 previous occasions‚ with the first tour taking place in 1891. In that time‚ the Lions have won four Test series‚ lost eight and drawn one. Their overall record against the Springboks is played 46‚ won 17‚ lost 23 and drawn six.

Registration for interest in tickets for the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour to SA opened on December 4 at www.lionstour2021.co.za.

Full 2021 tour schedule:

July 3: British & Irish Lions vs Stormers — Cape Town Stadium‚ Cape Town

July 7: British & Irish Lions vs SA “Invitational” — Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium‚ Port Elizabeth

July 10: British & Irish Lions vs Sharks — Kings Park‚ Durban

July 14: British & Irish Lions vs SA “A”— Mbombela Stadium‚ Nelspruit

July 17: British & Irish Lions vs Bulls — Loftus Versfeld‚ Pretoria

July 24 (first Test): Springboks vs British & Irish Lions — Soccer City‚ Johannesburg

July 31 (second Test): Springboks vs British & Irish Lions — Cape Town Stadium‚ Cape Town

August 7 (third Test): Springboks vs British & Irish Lions — Ellis Park‚ Johannesburg