The British and Irish Lions have lost a first match to coronavirus after Saturday’s clash with the Bulls was postponed because of an outbreak in the South African province’s team.
And in a further setback that calls into question the ongoing viability of the tour, an additional 10 positive Tests by players and management in the Springbok camp have thrown their Test against Georgia on Friday into grave doubt.
Complicating the hopes of the second of South Africa’s warm-up games taking place at Emirates Airline Park is that Georgia have also also been affected, producing four confirmed cases of Covid. However, the game has not been cancelled yet.
Only the Lions have managed to escape the virus as the Gauteng region that encompasses Johannesburg and Pretoria finds itself in the grip of an escalating third wave of the pandemic.
But the tourists’ schedule now faces revision with two options under consideration – fixing a new date for the Bulls game or finding alternative opposition to fill the gap created on Saturday.
It became impossible for the match to proceed after the Pretoria-based franchise saw four players and one member of management test positive. Once close contacts were factored in, it became apparent they would be unable to field a team.
The vital task facing tour organisers is to ensure the Test series between the Lions and South Africa takes place, with the first meeting due to be held in Cape Town on July 24.
“These positive results are a setback and have underlined the danger of transmissibility of the delta variant,” said SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux.
“The Springboks’ second Test against Georgia is now in serious doubt, but we will wait for the Medical Advisory Group to consider the data and we will make the final decision tomorrow (Wednesday).
“The priority is to maintain the integrity of the Test series and we will continue to focus on that.”
South Africa placed their entire 46-man squad into isolation on Monday after lock Lood De Jager produced a positive, and a subsequent round of testing revealed the scale of the problem.
Second row Marvin Orie, centre Frans Steyn, fly-half Handre Pollard and prop Frans Malherbe now face 10 days of quarantine, but the impact has also been felt in the management team.
In a significant blow to the Springboks, head coach Jacques Nienaber is among the six staff confirmed as having coronavirus, complicating the build-up to the Georgia international – if it happens – and the Test series against the Lions.
While the Lions’ game against the Sharks at Emirates Airline Park on Wednesday night has the green light to go ahead, the tour is entering a critical phase, with Covid threatening to cause havoc to the schedule after only two games.
Doubts will now resurface over the wisdom of pressing ahead with the event when the host nation is battling against a spiralling crisis that has resulted in a hard lockdown which includes a curfew, alcohol ban, travel restrictions, school closures and a buckling health system.
“A further update will be issued on potential alternative opponents for the Lions and on the Springboks’ second Test against Georgia as soon as the positions are finalised,” a statement read.
Defence coach Steve Tandy insists the Lions have adopted a policy of being ready to adjust to any challenges thrown up.
“Through Covid you learn that you need to adapt – you can have the best laid plans, but things move really quickly and change,” Tandy said.
“It’s about being prepared for whatever comes our way at whatever moment in time. There’s been a lot of speculation around but that hasn’t affected the mood in the camp.
“Something we’re constantly reminding the players of is taking no risks in what we’re doing. We are tested three or four times a week and everything is sanitised.
“Everyone’s on their best behaviour. No-one wants to jeopardise this tour in any way, shape, or form.”