Lions arrive in South Africa but rising Covid rates threaten tour plans | British & Irish Lions

The British & Irish Lions have arrived safely in South Africa but uncertainty still hangs over their tour itinerary, with rising Covid-19 infection rates in the province of Gauteng prompting increasing concern. The possibility of staging the majority of the tour games, and potentially all three Tests, in Cape Town is under discussion, although South African officials remain keen to stick to the existing schedule.

Every precaution is being taken to ensure the tour can proceed safely, with the Lions’ hand luggage being carefully sprayed with disinfectant at Johannesburg airport, but the Lions are not yet absolutely sure if they will be staying put in Gauteng for their opening three tour fixtures next month.

Saturday’s game against the provincial Lions at Ellis Park in Johannesburg is set to go ahead as planned, albeit against a backdrop of rising hospital admissions and tighter government restrictions including a 9pm curfew, a ban on the sale of alcohol and restaurants being allowed to serve only takeaways. If the situation deteriorates further, the wisdom of trying to host a rugby tour during an intense Covid third wave will become an increasing topic of debate.

There has at least been one piece of moderately upbeat news, with the Springboks being cleared to return to training after one of the three players who had previously tested positive for the virus, the scrum-half Herschel Jantjies, subsequently returned a negative test.

This was deemed enough to allow the remaining members of the squad to resume their preparations for Friday’s warm-up Test against Georgia, albeit without Vincent Koch and Sbu Nkosi, who also tested positive on Sunday. On the flip side this week’s Currie Cup game between the Cheetahs and the Bulls, whom the Lions are due to meet next month, has been cancelled following a positive test returned by a Cheetahs front-row player.

Marcus Smith of Harlequins after victory in the Premiership final
Marcus Smith of Harlequins (centre) has been called up to England’s squad to face the USA, after Saturday’s victory in the Premiership final. Photograph: Andrew Fosker/Seconds Left/Shutterstock

While Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, has said the touring side have been given assurances the series will go ahead, the continuing disruption being caused in so many sports by coronavirus makes it impossible to predict anything with absolute confidence. The near-certain absence of crowds will also have a significant financial effect at a time when SA Rugby is already short of money.

The situation in Europe is not exactly improving, either, with Scotland’s squad and management having opted to self-isolate until next week after three positive Covid tests were recorded in their camp. Sunday’s international between England A and Scotland A in Leicester was called off after nine Scotland players went into isolation on Saturday and all players and staff are now going into isolation regardless of whether they were deemed a close contact or not.

England have called up the uncapped Harlequins trio of Alex Dombrandt, Jack Kenningham and Marcus Smith to their squad preparing for Sunday’s Test against the United States at Twickenham. The Quins centre Joe Marchant, also fresh from Saturday’s Premiership final success, has also been selected but just one Exeter player, Henry Slade, has been included.

The Wasps hooker Gabriel Oghre also features but the Northampton winger Ollie Sleightholme is a non-runner after suffering concussion in training, making him the fifth England squad player to be sidelined in training this month. Joe Heyes, Lewis Ludlow, Harry Randall, Jacob Umaga and Dan Kelly, each of whom could still theoretically be captured by other nations after the cancellation of Sunday’s A international, are all included.

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It has been confirmed in New Zealand, meanwhile, that Tabai Matson will be taking over as Harlequins’ new head coach next season. The well-travelled Matson has previously been on the coaching staff at Bath and the Crusaders, among others.

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