Lions tour teeters but pandemic could push it off tightrope at any time

Sport

It pays to celebrate the tiniest piece of good news on this British & Irish Lions tour because no one knows what is lurking round the corner. At least the tourists have been cleared to play their next game on Saturday but their fraught expedition into southern Africa is starting to make Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness feel like a light romantic comedy.

On the plus side the Lions will take the field in Pretoria, led out for the first time by the hooker Jamie George, the first Englishman to captain the Lions since Phil Vickery against Western Province in 2009. Also involved will be all but one of the players forced to miss Wednesday’s “first leg” against the Sharks because of the Covid-19 scare in the Lions camp that has revealed to all concerned just how precarious a tightrope this tour is balancing on.

Following the discovery in midweek that a member of staff had tested positive, there are still four other tour members – one player and three staff – in isolation at the team hotel. But with a second player initially feared to have tested positive now officially cleared it means that he and all his close contacts are back in the game as far as Warren Gatland’s teamsheet is concerned.

Aside from Elliot Daly and Duhan van der Merwe, who both double up having already played 80 minutes in midweek, there are 13 new starters for a game originally meant to involve the local Bulls franchise until a Covid outbreak forced an abrupt rethink. Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Chris Harris, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies, Conor Murray and Tadhg Beirne are all back in the matchday 23 having been forced to withdraw from the midweek fixture, leaving Stuart Hogg as the only absentee not to reappear.

No wonder that Gatland, with bone dry Kiwi understatement, called it as “a slightly turbulent week” which he hopes will bond the tour party even tighter together. “We remain determined to keep rolling with the punches,” insisted the head coach, impressed by the way his squad brushed aside their disrupted build-up to defeat the Sharks 54-7 on Wednesday. “In many ways the challenges we’ve faced this week have strengthened our resolve. Whatever is being thrown at us we feel we’re able to cope with it. The players are excited about playing the Springboks and hopefully winning the Test series.”

The fact remains, nevertheless, that the rest of the tour itinerary is at the mercy of events far beyond the Lions control. With Covid having infiltrated the Springbok camp and forced the cancellation of their second Test against Georgia, it remains to be seen precisely who will be available for the SA ‘A’ side due to face the Lions in Cape Town on Wednesday, with a possible contingency plan involving that fixture being switched with the Stormers game on Saturday to help give a few shadow Boks some much needed game time. Gatland also says he fully anticipates that all three Tests, assuming they happen, will now take place in Cape Town.

Which leads to the crux of the argument: is all this inelegant ducking and diving missing the all-important bigger picture? What about the integrity and value of the provincial games: the sense that they properly matter in their own right and spiritually underpin the entire Lions ethos? Is going through the motions against patched-up, recycled opposition who stand barely any chance of victory really what modern tours have become?

The former WRU chairman Gareth Davies has already suggested that playing the same team twice in four days “makes a farce of things really”. It should be said that there is an admittedly distant precedent from 1910 when, as detailed in the soon-to-be-published book Lions in Africa by Chris Schoeman and David McLennan, the Lions ended up facing the Border provincial team twice in four days.

With a dispute raging between the touring team and their hosts about the savagely tough itinerary, the Lions players opted to play the first match in their club jerseys as a protest, winning a so-called ‘charity game’ 30-10 before a rather tougher rematch ended in a 13-13 draw.

The Sharks are unlikely to enjoy a similar transformation, with their nine Springbok representatives still away in the national camp and the pace of the Lions’ game at Ellis Park having visibly proved too much. From the Lions’ perspective the aim will be to crank things up again, experiment with a few more potential Test combinations and try to distract everyone from their next round of PCR testing.

In terms of backs-to-the-wall resilience, if nothing else this touring team’s spirit has so far been exemplary. How fair is it, even so, to expect both them and the Boks to head into such a massive series with their preparations so potentially compromised? Whose interests are ultimately being served?

If “ghost” provincial fixtures in sad, empty stadiums end up becoming the defining symbols of this Lions tour, it will be a desperate shame.