The outlook for the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa from July this year appears have deteriorated due to the continuing disruption caused by the COVID pandemic.
The Daily Mail reported on Saturday that the original target was to wait until March to make a firm decision on whether or not to proceed with the highly-anticipated tour to face the world champion Springboks, but talks are now likely to reach a critical point by the end of this month. +5
The outlook for the tour appears to have deteriorated alarmingly in the last fortnight and multiple sources have conceded that hopes of the Lions avoiding the fall-out from the pandemic are fading. Rugby authorities in South Africam where a second pandemic wave has hit and with a vaccination programme is still months away, are now 'starting to fear the worst'.
It has previously been made clear that the whole venture cannot proceed without crowds and that position has not changed, despite the revenue generated by broadcast rights and a vast array of lucrative sponsorship deals.
Officials in the host nation and within the home unions accept the vital need for the Lions' 'Red Army' to be able to attend – with around 30,000 travelling fans expected.
Even a global health crisis has not diluted the appeal of this iconic sporting brand. Speaking in late October, Lions managing director Ben Calveley said: 'The level of interest is approximately five times higher than what we've had on previous tours. We sold the level of packages that we sold for the Australia (2013) tour within one day of going on sale, and I think it took a week to get beyond the number of packages that were sold for the New Zealand (2017) tour.
'Two of the Test matches sold out in record time - they were gone within an hour of going on sale - and the third Test, because it's played in a great big 92,000-seat venue at Soccer City, took a little bit longer; about a couple of days. But all of them sold out and are very heavily over-subscribed. Those numbers suggest that people intend to travel in their droves.'
The fall-back option will be to explore whether it is feasible to shift the tour back a year, to the same window in 2022. Such is the commercial clout of the Lions, there may be a collective will to make such a contingency work, although South Africa are supposed to be involved in a Test series against Wales during that window, while England are scheduled to visit Australia then and Ireland have a series in New Zealand.
Any attempt to postpone the tour by a year would create all manner of logistical difficulties in the crowded rugby calendar and push the next Lions crusade closer to the 2023 World Cup, which is not ideal. It would also leave Warren Gatland, the tourists' head coach, with a complex employment issue to resolve, as he is meant to be back with the Waikato Chiefs in 2022.
However, the alternative to a one-year delay is cancellation; a doomsday scenario with grim financial implications - as well as the loss of a cherished sporting spectacle - which officials will be desperate to avoid at all costs.
Gatland is due to visit South Africa on another reconnaissance mission next month, but that trip is in doubt due to renewed travel restrictions. The man who masterminded a series victory over Australia eight years ago and a 1-1 draw with the All Blacks in 2017, was expected to name assistant coaches in the coming weeks, with indications that Andy Farrell and Steve Borthwick are in contention again, plus Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.