SA Rugby president Mark Alexander. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
SA Rugby president Mark Alexander. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

The cancellation of the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour of SA is a prospect too ghastly to contemplate.

The country‚ according to an independent study‚ can potentially benefit from a R6.5bn shot in the arm from the tour‚ and will throw SA Rugby‚ already treading water‚ a timely lifeline.

Lions tours are huge money spinners as up to 40,000 travelling spectators pound cash registers on their quadrennial crusade. In 2017, New Zealand Rugby reported record profits on the back of the Lions’ tour of that country amassing R371m. Moreover‚ the tour contributed R2.72bn to New Zealand’s GDP.

In 2013, the Lions tour of Australia contributed R1.77bn to the Australian economy.

It was suggested last weekend the tour may be in jeopardy, but SA Rugby president Mark Alexander was quick to allay those fears. “The date might change, but it will go ahead. It is important to the country. The country stands to make R6.5bn as a direct result of the tour‚” he said optimistically.

Whether SA can rake in the profits as originally estimated is moot in a post-coronavirus environment in which air travel may warrant a second claim.

Already, newly re-elected World Rugby chair Bill Beaumont indicated the annual two Test windows may run back-to-back in 2021 as the world recovers from the fallout of Covid-19. A new global calendar is also expected to kick into action in the aftermath of the pandemic.

By moving the British and Irish Lions tour from its July 3-August 21 slot‚ rugby bosses will also avoid clashing with the Tokyo Olympics‚ another quadrennial spectacle that is in the balance. By moving the tour to September and October, organisers may also convince more fans to make the trip to a distinctly warmer climate.

SA Rugby clearly has a lot riding on the success of the 2021 tour. Apart from the cash injection‚ Lions tours carry prestige perhaps surpassed only by the Rugby World Cup.

Principally, though‚ they can do with the cash. If the tour gets the green light the big migration south is likely to follow.

Former British and Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan succinctly put its value in commercial terms at the conclusion of the team’s last tour to SA in 2009: “If you can persuade 40,000 people to fly 9,600km to watch a rugby team‚ that’s not a bad business model.”