With less than 1% of the population vaccinated, what hope South Africa vs. Lions crowds?
"They don't just play for the crowds. They play for the people back home. Siya Kolisi plays for those starving kids in places where he comes from. They have that internal motivation."
Now that the British & Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa has been announced, and the Springboks have announced warm-up games, the upcoming Test Series has a more tangible feel to it.
Most of us have un-crossed our fingers at this stage as plans for the tour take shape. South African broadcaster Super Sport tipped their hand towards the revamped tour schedule, on Saturday, and Lions officials are set to confirm it on Wednesday.
The South Africans are desperately hoping to get clearance for even a limited capacity at all eight of the Lions games. The Rainbow Nation is still recording over 2,000 Covid-19 cases a day and less than 1% of the population are vaccinated. Although some provinces are claiming they will only need 21 days to vaccinate 67% of the adult population, actions will need to speak much louder than words.
Indeed, the South African government had to row back on claims they could get two-thirds of the adult population vaccinated by December 2021 to March 2022. Vaccine doses, sourced through the COVAX Initiative, are coming in greater numbers but are only projected to surpass 200 million doses [per month] in August, and this is for the entire continent of Africa.
The South African Rugby Union, today, announced they had a 45% drop in revenue in a severely Covid-affected 2020. On his recent House of Rugby Ireland appearance [LISTEN from 26:30 below], South African rugby correspondent Craig Ray explained how vital the Lions Tour is for rugby in his country.
SA Rugby says it has lost 710m RAND (just over €415,000) for 2020, which is some going when you consider the loss of revenue from Test match rugby, the wider Super Rugby competition and the lucrative Sevens Series event it hosts.
'The fall was caused by cuts in broadcast and sponsorship income,' the SA Rugby release reads, 'while the cancellation of the Test programme and the HSBC Cape Town Sevens – among other things – meant zero income was realised from major events.'
"By the end of the year it was a triumph to still be in business," said Jurie Roux, SA Rugby chief executive. "We did not have the reserves to ride out the storm without any impact, nor were government bailouts available. It took a unique collaboration across the industry to arrive at a drastic cost cutting plan to keep the sport afloat."
Getting the Lions to commit to touring South Africa this year, according to Craig Ray, may have saved SA Rugby from going bust.
"[Union] insiders had told me, if the Lions Tour doesn't go ahead, South African rugby could collapse. It's that vital to the rugby economy here in South Africa."
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber had been hoping to line up warm-up game for their world champion Springbok side against the USA and Japan, but they have not been confirmed yet. Two Tests against Georgia have been confirmed, though, and there will be broadcast revenue generated by that.
If either the USA or Japan cannot travel down - and their dance cards are filling up with northern hemisphere sides - the Boks may split their wider squad in two for an old-school 'Probables' vs. 'Possibles' game, ahead of the Lions Test Series. Getting fans back through the gates, even at a fraction of the full capacity, would boost the coffers.
Brendan Nel a long-time rugby writer in South African says SA Rugby are pushing for up to 50% capacity, especially for the Test matches in Cape Town and Johannesburg. "The problems comes, again, from the government and their hesitancy," he says, "but they may have access to more information than we have.
"Daily cases are down to where they were in January - around the 20,000s - but the vaccine programme has been lagging behind. So it's whether that can picked up before the Lions get here [in late June]."
"There's still a lot of talk," says Ray. "I spoke with someone at SARU today and they are hopeful [about getting crowds in].
"They government may accede to allowing some fans into stadiums, but I don't think that it will be more than 10,000, at any given moment. That's just a guess, based on some of the conversations I've had.
"So it's going to be a very different Lions Tour for everyone, especially for the Lions. One of the great things, even as a host nation, with the Lions is the tens of thousands of Lions supporters in red shirts you see in the stands, and the unique atmosphere it brings. That's all going to be gone. It's going to be tough on the players, but I guess they got used to that."
Ray says the likes of South African captain Siya Kolisi and many of his teammates have enough internal motivation to push them through these big games on the horizon, whether crowds are in the stadiums or watching from home. Once they have something to play for again, after over 550 days without a Test match, it is enough.
"There were a lot of happy people once that Lions squad was named," he says, "because it makes it real. It makes it feel like it is going to game.
"After all the angst and anxiety over the past year, it felt pivotal."