British & Irish Lions tour is on ... and will be played in front of fans

Ellis Park (Lloyd Burnard)
Ellis Park (Lloyd Burnard)

Elite, top level rugby matches are likely to be played behind closed doors until an effective coronavirus vaccine is freely available, according to guidelines released by World Rugby.

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The document, compiled by four of World Rugby's leading medical experts, raises the possibility of this year's end of year Tests and next year's Six Nations being played in empty stadiums or in front of a radically reduced number of spectators.

Fears of the British & Irish Lions' mid-2021 tour to South Africa suffering a similar fate were dispelled on Monday when it confirmed the Springboks' visitors are very much still on track to head to the country and the only aspect that may change, is the date.

Both parties are open to a revision to the current 3 July to 7 August dates to later in 2021, with September-October being suggested as an alternative, should the need arise.

The 2021 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, the first since 2009, is expected to provide a massive - and much needed - cash injection into the coffers of not only SA Rugby, but the four home unions as well, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc with the financial well-being of organisations in both hemispheres.

According to The Guardian website, the World Rugby guidelines - compiled by Eanna Falvey, Prav Mathema, Mary Horgan and Martin Raftery - have been issued to all unions.

These guidelines advise that rugby should be played behind closed doors until a vaccine for the coronavirus is freely available - which, depending on who you choose to believe, could take up to 18 months.

If that's indeed the eventuality, it would mean no packed stadiums until late 2021, or early 2022 in more likelihood.

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Furthermore, even when players do return to training after the lockdown, they will have to continue to observe physical distancing, wear masks and avoid physical contact. They will also be asked to answer a daily questionnaire and have their temperature taken before entering a training facility. If a player has a temperature above 37.5 degrees, they will be sent home.

On World Rugby's recommendation, competitive matches should only resume once there is full agreement between unions, players, coaches and the competition organisers. Test rugby can only start taking place once countries relax their border-control measures.

SA Rugby has hopes of resuming rugby activity at some point in the country in 2020.

However, all Youth Weeks, including Craven Week, have already been cancelled this year, as has the provincial Under-20 tournament.

There are still hopes of staging a local franchise and union competition planned for June to August as an alternative to Super Rugby and the PRO14, although those dates appear highly unlikely with South Africa currently on lockdown Level 4, with sporting activities only permitted to resume on Level 1 according to gazetted regulations.

Once again, when that Level 1 might kick in depends on who you choose to listen to.

As SA Rugby looks to cut up to R1 billion from their budget in the remaining months of 2020, it may have to brace itself for an even longer period without revenue generated from the paying public at stadiums.

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While Sanzaar were at pains to refute claims South Africa may be 'left out in the cold' as a result of the Covid-19 crisis as plans for a trans-Tasman version of Super Rugby involving Australia, New Zealand and their neighbouring Pacific rugby-playing islands later in 2020 or 2021 gathers steam, it's another waiting game to see how that unfolds.

Sanzaar did admit in the 'short-term' such an Australasian and Oceania tournament 'may' go ahead, but long-term-wise they claimed the Sanzaar relationship between the four nations remains strong - and in place until 2030 at least.

But these are indeed unprecedented times with predictions to be taken with a pinch of salt as things may well change as each of those countries have, and are likely to have, very differing Covid-19 lockdown protocols going forward.

- Compiled by Garrin Lambley

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