The Lions have reached a day of reckoning, as they are set to discover if the government will under-write their bid to host a ‘tour’ in the UK and Ireland, amid growing fears of cancellation if the request is rejected.
An initial approach for support from Westminster did not receive a positive response but Sportsmail understands that a firm decision is expected on Friday.
Sources have indicated that there are concerns among South African rugby authorities that if the government refuse to provide a safety net, the ‘conservative’ Lions board will be panicked into abandoning the entire venture.
The Lions are to discover if Government will underwrite a bid to host a ‘tour’ in UK and Ireland
Disruption caused by Covid has wrecked the scheduled eight-match tour culminating in three Tests against the world champion Springboks, in front of vast crowds in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Soweto.
The home unions have been pushing hard for a contingency plan of staging fixtures here, with warm-ups involving Japan, the Barbarians, the USA and South Africa ‘A’, before Tests in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Dublin, but this scenario hangs in the balance.
Hypothetical itineraries have been drawn up and some venues have already been provisionally booked. If the government decide that they are prepared to deliver the reassurances which the Lions have requested, it will be all systems go for the fall-back plans.
South African rugby authorities fear the Lions board will be panicked into abandoning the entire venture if the Government fail to provide support with a decision expected on Friday
Officials are working on the basis that they need approval for crowds at a minimum level of 25 per cent capacity, in order to break even. Their hope is that they will be permitted to operate with all stadia at 50 per cent of their normal limits, but that isn’t a certainty and the forecast is especially bleak about the prospect of spectators returning in Ireland.
Multiple sources have claimed that the Lions hierarchy are now eager to make a decision, one way or another. But this in turn has raised fears about the spectre of cancellation.
One well-placed source told Sportsmail: ‘It’s highly unlikely without government support. They don’t want to under-write the cost. We are moving closer and closer to cancelling.’
Within South African circles, there remains a fervent desire to ensure that a series between the Lions and the Springboks can take place somehow, somewhere, but also worries that the home unions will lose patience and pull the plug, rather than consider every scenario.
While the offer from Australia to host a tour has lost appeal due to their insistence that the Lions should play a Test against the Wallabies as part of the package, alternative options still exist.
Covid has wrecked the tour culminating in three Tests against the world champion Springboks
The last resort of playing matches as originally planned in South Africa, behind closed doors, is not off the table but it is highly unlikely and both sides are reluctant to seriously consider it.
Meanwhile, certain vested interests have sought to shoot down any thought of postponing the tour by a year, but that is still logistically feasible, if there was a will to revive talks about it.
Key figures such as England head coach Eddie Jones and his Ireland counterpart, Andy Farrell, are believed to have made it clear in no uncertain terms that they would oppose any attempt to push back the Lions crusade to the summer of 2022. England are due to visit Australia to play three Tests and Ireland are heading to New Zealand for a daunting series against the All Blacks.
Such is the clout of Jones in particular that his reluctance to accept any interruption to his World Cup planning means that the RFU are understood to have resisted the notion of a 12-month delay to the Lions tour.
Bill Sweeney, the RFU chief executive, sits on the Lions board, along with his counterparts from Wales, Scotland and Ireland – Steve Phillips, Mark Dodson and Philip Browne.
England head coach Eddie Jones has made clear he would oppose the tour being pushed back
In addition, there are four former Lions players on the board; chairman Jason Leonard (England), Gavin Hastings (Scotland), Tom Grace (Ireland) and Ieuan Evans (Wales).
Initially, traditionalists had hoped that these men would wish to preserve the touring heritage of the Lions, but it increasingly appears as if they will instead fall in line with the wishes of their respective unions.
Any decision made by the Lions board requires agreement from the South African Rugby Union, which would appear to reduce the risk of a knee-jerk cancellation. However, there is a clear sense that if the Lions don’t receive the government backing they have sought and are panicked into putting forward a motion for cancellation, the writing will be on the wall.
Such a scenario would represent a shattering setback for the whole sport and World Rugby are monitoring the situation, with a view to informally intervening if they consider there to be a need for arbitration.
It is understood that the governing body do not consider postponement by a year to be unattainable, but it does require consent from all 11 ‘Tier 1’ nations, on the basis of the knock-on effect for fixtures worldwide within the Test window in July, 2022.