South Africa head coach says Lions tour should ‘definitely’ go ahead despite country’s Covid third wave

South Africa's game against Georgia will be their first Test since Jacques Nienaber was promoted to head coach in January 2020

Credit: AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber has declared that the British and Irish Lions tour should “definitely” proceed despite a backdrop of Covid-19 strife across the country, with his players set on the “special” opportunity to participate in a series.

Speaking after naming three uncapped players in his team to face Georgia on Friday, the Springboks’ first outing since beating England in the final of Rugby World Cup 2019, Nienaber praised the protocols that have been put in place to protect his squad.

“Definitely, because of the environment they have established for both teams,” he said when asked whether the tour should go ahead amid rising infections and the spread of the Delta variant.

“I am not an expert in virology but I think they are trying to mitigate the risk of infection as much as they can. We adhere to those protocols and, from the Springboks’ perspective, there isn’t a player that does not want to participate in this tour because it is such a special tour.

“It only comes around maybe once every 12 years. As a Springboks player, you will be lucky to participate in it once in a career. Everyone is doing their utmost to stay Covid- free.

“With a virus, I don’t think you can completely take away the risk but the precautions being taken to keep us as safe as possible are magical and we’re abiding by them. I can’t see that the tour will be in jeopardy. We are operating as normally as we can within our environment.”

Following three positive tests among their squad over the weekend, South Africa ended a short period of isolation and resumed training on Monday afternoon. Less than 24 hours later, in response to the government moving to level four of restrictions, amateur club rugby across South Africa was suspended.

Even so, for this long-awaited first Test outing following his promotion to head coach from defence coach in January 2020, Nienaber has been able to pick 18 members of South Africa’s World Cup-winning squad, 12 of whom featured in the final.

🚨 BREAKING! Your Springbok team to face @GeorgianRugby on Friday
🇿🇦 Three uncapped players included next to 18 RWC winners
🗣️ “We have selected the best team with a good balance…”
🔗 Full story: https://t.co/FA88tHUE8C#StrongerTogether #StrongerForever #CastleLionsSeries pic.twitter.com/dH5SppS4Da

— Springboks (@Springboks) June 29, 2021

Siya Kolisi captains the side from a back row that also contains Pieter-Steph du Toit, with Kwagga Smith at No 8 in the absence of Duane Vermeulen. Handre Pollard and Cobus Reinach form an all-Montpellier half-back partnership.

Rosko Specman and Aphelele Fassi, deployed on the wings either side of experienced full-back Willie le Roux, are the two debutants in the starting team with Jasper Wiese named among the replacements and primed for his Test introduction.

Nienaber lauded Wiese’s form for Leicester Tigers, saying that the hard-carrying 25-year-old “really knocked the door down in terms of performance”.

Wiese is the only member of South Africa’s Premiership contingent to feature, with Faf de Klerk and the rest of his Sale Sharks colleagues waiting in the wings.

Cheslin Kolbe has also been held back following his Top 14-winning exploits with Toulouse, with Nienaber confirming that he would use two Tests against Georgia as well as South Africa A’s meeting with the Lions, scheduled for July 14 in Cape Town, to prepare for the Test series.

  • Lions in South Africa: Match dates, times and latest squad news

South Africa suspends all amateur club rugby as third wave continues to rage

By Charlie Morgan

All amateur club rugby has been suspended in South Africa with immediate effect, just 24 hours after the British and Irish Lions touched down to begin their tour of the country.

There is no suggestion that the Lions’ matches, which are due to start on Saturday with an encounter against Emirates Lions in Johannesburg, will be affected.

Fixtures in elite provincial competitions such as the Currie Cup are to continue with “strict adherence to all relevant protocols”.

However, the measure, which comes in response to Sunday’s introduction of level four protocols to combat the spread of Covid-19 as the Delta variant drives a third wave of infections, provides another stark reminder of the backdrop to this tour.

Quoted in a statement from SA Rugby on Tuesday morning, chief executive Jurie Roux described the approach as “proactive” and “safety first”.

“Even though the Government Gazette allows for club rugby to continue, all provincial unions have halted club and amateur rugby proactively and we are very grateful of this approach of safety first,” he said.

“I want to compliment all the role players – including the administrators, coaches and players – for taking responsibility to halt club and amateur rugby due to the resurgence of Covid-19 in recent weeks.

“Ultimately, the health, safety and wellbeing of our players, coaches, officials and others comes first. We will reassess the situation after 11 July, even though most of the club leagues have already been halted beyond that date.”

On Monday afternoon, it was announced that the Currie Cup match between Toyota Cheetahs and Vodacom Bulls, whom the Lions are due to face on July 10, had been cancelled.

The Cheetahs were not able to field a front row for the game, which was scheduled for Wednesday, due to a positive Covid-19 test.

What is the Covid situation in South Africa?

The country is in the midst of a third wave with the spread of infection accelerating as the Delta variant of the virus has become more prominent. On Sunday, the seven-day rolling average of new infections surpassed 15,000 per day and the government has imposed level four restrictions for a 14-day period. These include a ban on alcohol sales as well as indoor and outdoor gatherings, except for funerals, and the introduction of a 9pm-4am curfew.

Is it bad where the Lions are going?

The Lions flew into Johannesburg on Sunday evening. Gauteng, the province where they are staying until they move to Cape Town ahead of their fourth match against South Africa A, has been the worst hit. Travel in and out of the area for leisure has been prohibited under the new regulations.

What happens if matches are cancelled? 

There is still a determination to play all eight matches, but no contingencies for rearranging cancelled fixtures.

Can the tour still be moved?

Spokesmen from both the Lions and South Africa outlined on Monday that the current schedule would not be amended until at least later in the week. However, reports have indicated that the Test series could be staged in Cape Town. Currently, the series is due to move to Johannesburg for the last two matches after opening in Cape Town.

Conor Murray: ‘The battle for a match day place is up and running’

By Mick Cleary

Lions captain, Conor Murray, believes that the squad’s presence in the Covid-engulfed surroundings of Johannesburg will help ‘put a smile on people’s faces,’ even if the first training session since their arrival in South Africa revealed nothing but ‘edge and focus,’ among the group ahead of the tour opener.

The country went into Level 4 lockdown as the Lions left Edinburgh on Sunday evening and although the mounting rate of sickness from the coronavirus in the Gauteng area in particular has raised concerns that the tour will be affected, at the very least with the three-test series being switched entirely to Cape Town, the newly-appointed Lions captain insisted that the imminence of the first game in South Africa has concentrated minds.

“Obviously we’re very aware of what’s going on with the lockdown but the protocols are in place and we’re here to hopefully put a smile on people’s faces, here and back home,” said Murray who only took over the captaincy duties on Saturday after Alun Wyn Jones was injured against Japan. 

“Since we’ve been here, when the bus stops at traffic lights, we’ve had people beeping, waving and smiling at us. There’s a good buzz around us being here. We’re very aware of the situation outside the hotel. We literally go from the hotel to the training ground so we’re very much restricted in our movements. But it’s a live document and things can change quickly. The seriousness of why we’re here is taking over and there is an edge to training. The battle for a match day place is really up and running. You can see it already in people’s body language, the way people are even preparing in the gym before we go out onto the pitch. They’re in their own zone. Once we get on that training pitch no-one holds back.”

The Lions had a double-training session on Tuesday ahead of the naming of their team on Thursday for the first game of their eight-match schedule. Even though the last four players of the 37-man squad only joined up with the squad prior to departure following last weekend’s Premiership final between Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins, the Lions report that everyone is fit and available for selection. Murray is taking nothing for granted and does not believe his surprise elevation to the captaincy means that he is guaranteed to start in the first test against the Springboks in Cape Town on July 24th.

“I don’t for a second think it’s a given,” said Murray who would have been the favourite to start in the no9 shirt ahead of Ali Price and Gareth Davies after two successful Lions tours. “Playing in the Test matches is what it’s all about. That’s what we’re all trying to do. If anything (as captain) you want to be at the top of your game and playing as well as you can possibly play.”

Murray, who has never captained either Munster or Ireland, intends to remain true to himself.“Al (Wyn Jones) just told me on Sunday morning to be myself,” said Murray. “He gave me a pat on my shoulder and said that he has complete faith in me. He has already set the tone for the mission here. It has been a crazy few days and there was lingering sadness on Saturday. It has taken a few days to sink in but I don’t see it as putting extra pressure on me. If you over-think it, it’ll start to bother you a lot. It’s top of my list that I don’t try to change. It is a clean sheet and it is the way I do it now.”   

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