The British & Irish Lions face playing all matches of this summer’s tour of South Africa behind closed doors following confirmation of the revised schedule. All eight of the Lions’ matches will take place in Gauteng and Cape Town with organisers revealing on Friday they are planning for empty stadiums.
While the hope is Murrayfield will be about 25% full for the warm‑up Test against Japan, the absence of supporters on the tour would be a devastating blow. South Africa Rugby has been lobbying its government to allow crowds of up to 50% capacity and this month an official request was made to the country’s Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee but organisers are pressing ahead on the basis of empty stadiums.
When it was confirmed the tour would go ahead in March, SA Rugby warned of the “serious financial implications” of playing behind closed doors. The union is still hopeful the South African government will lift restrictions on crowds attending sporting events before the tour but if it does not supporters will not attend.
The estimated cost to the South African economy is £330m while the Lions will also take a considerable hit. It has been known for some time that Lions supporters would not be attending in their thousands but ticket holders are being refunded and fans have been told not to travel to the red-list country.
“We’re delighted to be able to finally confirm the revised schedule after months of scenario planning and shifting circumstances,” said Jurie Roux, SA Rugby chief executive. “It has been a challenging process with dozens of variables to consider but we believe we have arrived at a schedule that minimises the risks associated with the pandemic.
“We are hopeful that restrictions on attendance at sports events will be relaxed, but for the moment we are planning for an event behind closed doors.”
As previously reported by the Guardian, the schedule has been revised to limit the amount of travel and risk of disruption amid the pandemic. The Test series against the Springboks will begin in Cape Town before the second and third matches at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. All three will kick off at 5pm UK time.
One of the tourists’ opponents has also changed with the Emirates Lions replacing the South Africa invitational team. They will be the Lions’ first opponents at Ellis Park in Johannesburg before they meet the Sharks in the same stadium four days later. They will then face the Bulls in Pretoria before heading to Cape Town for matches against South Africa A, the Stormers and the first Test.