THE touring British and Irish Lions will arrive in South Africa today to a country wracked by a new wave of COVID-19 infections, facing harsher lockdown restrictions and opponents who have reported their first cases of the coronavirus.
SA Rugby, however, on Sunday moved to allay fears of any threat to the tour, which already bears no resemblance to the festive atmosphere which has been a hallmark of the four-yearly Lions experience.
The first tour to South Africa since 2009 is condemned to being played in empty stadiums, without any spectators never mind the red-clad touring hordes the Lions traditional bring with them.
Instead of safari drives, pub tours and traditional outdoor barbecues, the Lions face being cloistered in hotels for the entire eight-match, six-week tour.
South Africa’s world champion Springboks have moved into a bio-secure bubble but three players tested positive when they arrived on Saturday to continue preparations for the three-test series. The team cancelled a planned training session on Sunday.
Scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, prop Vincent Koch and winger S’bu Nkosi were named as the three players but South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus said it would not impact on the tour.
“I don’t think it’s a big cause for concern but we want to keep everybody as safe as possible,” he told a news conference on Sunday.
Both Johannesburg and Pretoria, where the Lions play their first three matches against provincial opposition, are the grip of a third wave of the pandemic with further lockdown restrictions expected later on Sunday when President Cyril Ramaphosa will address the nation.
South Africa recorded more than 18,000 new infections on Friday, with 215 deaths, and acting Health Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said it was likely the peak of the third wave would surpass that of the second wave in January, when more than 21,000 new daily cases were recorded.
New coronavirus infections appear to be dominated by the Delta variant that was first identified in India, scientists said on Saturday.
South Africa is the continent’s worst-affected nation in terms of coronavirus cases and deaths, accounting for roughly a third of confirmed infections and more than 40% of deaths.