The chance to play the fixtures in South Africa appeared to be dead due to Covid difficulties, with a potentially vaccine-busting variant of the virus spreading across the country.
But now, the plans are on for the squad to be there from late June for three Test matches against the world champions, as well as five other games. So how have we got here? Sportsmail’s rugby correspondent Chris Foy explains…
The British and Irish Lions will, after all, be touring South Africa later on this year
So the Lions WILL be touring South Africa. Will there be any crowds?
Time will tell. There is no certainty about that at this stage, although the logical assumption is that there is next to no chance of British and Irish fans being permitted to travel for the matches, sadly.
The most feasible best-case scenario is that COVID problems in South Africa ease sufficiently for a very limited number of local spectators to be allowed to attend, but even that is highly doubtful.
I thought plans were afoot to stage the tour over here… what changed?
The problem was the continuing uncertainty about crowds being allowed and the associated lack of clarity regarding the financial implications.
The Lions approached the UK government in the hope that they would under-write a home ‘tour’ to provide a safety net in the event of new lockdown restrictions forcing fixtures to be held behind closed doors after all, but they were denied. From that point on, the writing was on the wall.
It seems that, at best, there will be a limited crowd in attendance for the games in South Africa
Did Tuesday’s announcement take everyone in the game by surprise?
There has been rumours doing the rounds for a few weeks that the Lions board were beginning to err on the side of a South African tour again, but such has been the level of speculation in recent months that the picture was very blurred.
The situation moved on rapidly at the start of this week and the sudden official announcement definitely caught a lot of people off-guard.
What role did the sponsors and TV companies play in the decision?
They have been heavily involved in the negotiations behind the scenes, as vital ‘stakeholders’ in the event. Sky Sports were known to favour the concept of a traditional tour but were willing to accept if matches were moved to the UK and Ireland, as long as they would have a suitably grand event to broadcast.
The Lions have lucrative commercial arrangements with various blue-chip sponsors and Vodafone were an influential player, as were Castle Lager – the series sponsors – in South Africa.
While the tour is on, it will be a remarkably different set-up for the players who make the squad
At this stage, it appears players will be living in a Covid-secure bubble during the tour
Was the South African RU insured against Covid and playing without fans?
It is unclear what level of cover the South African authorities have managed to secure, because all the indications are that insurers have largely withdrawn policies which allow for pay-outs linked to COVID.
For a long time, it was emphasised that matches in South Africa without crowds would not be a financially viable scenario, but they have now agreed to go ahead, so the assumption must be that they have at least thrashed out a support package with their own government.
Will fans with packages get full refunds?
There has been a huge up-take for this tour and the expectation was that around 30,000 supporters would make the trip from the UK and Ireland, to ensure the Lions were roared on by another vast ‘Red Army’, in keeping with modern-day tradition.
Fans are likely to be offered the option of cancelling soon for a full refund, or deciding to go ahead with their travel plans, but with the risk of potentially losing the money they have spent if there is short-notice COVID disruption.
South Africa, the World Cup holders, will face the Lions without a vociferous home crowd
How is the tour likely to differ from a normal Lions tour?
It will just lack the usual, vibrant backdrop of colour and noise and partisan passion. South Africa is a fiercely proud rugby country and their public would have wanted to greet the Lions with hostility, to aid the Springboks’ chances.
If crowds are not permitted, there will be vast empty stands, so matches may even be switched to smaller venues in that event. Fixtures may be concentrated in one or two convenient centres, rather than any sense of a nationwide event.
The pre-Test tour matches may be reduced in number. It will be different in many ways.
For some, the idea of being in a bubble may seem particularly unappealing compared with how the much the situation could differ in Britain by the time June arrives
Will the players be holed up in bubbles for the entire trip?
Again, this factor is subject to further planning and clarification.
The assumption at this stage is that the Lions will have to operate in a strict bubble, as COVID is far from under control in South Africa – where the vaccination programme is yet to really take off.
Players are desperate to represent the Lions, but the thought of flying away from families and having activity strictly limited, just when the UK is due to be out of lockdown entirely, may force some to consider if they want to be involved.
LIONS TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA
03/07/2021 – DHL Stormers v British & Irish Lions, Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
07/07/2021 – South Africa ‘Invitational’ v British & Irish Lions, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
10/07/2021 – Cell C Sharks v British & Irish Lions, Jonsson Kings Park, Durbam
14/07/2021 – South Africa ‘A’ v British & Irish Lions, Mbombela Stadium, Mbombela
17/07/2021 – Vodacom Bulls v British & Irish Lions, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
24/07/2021 – Springboks v British & Irish Lions, FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
31/07/2021 – Springboks v British & Irish Lions, Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
07/08/2021 – Springboks v British & Irish Lions, Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg