Bulls ‘disappointed’ as Lions tour descends into uncertainty

Bulls CEO Edgar Rathbone remains cautiously optimistic that the tour match against the British & Irish Lions could be rescheduled for the Tuesday before the first Test in Cape Town. CRAIG LEWIS reports.

On what turned out to be a nightmarish day for rugby in South Africa, Covid-19 outbreaks in the Bok, Bulls and Georgia camps laid waste to some out of the best-laid plans.

The Springboks-Georgia warm-up match scheduled for Friday looks likely to be cancelled, while Saturday’s battle between the Lions and Bulls has been called off for now.

It’s a considerable blow for the Boks, who desperately needed another hit-out after a rusty start in their first clash with Georgia, while the second game was also going to present an opportunity to reintroduce some overseas-based players to action.

The Bulls tour match was also key in the Lions’ pre-Test schedule as the Pretoria-based franchise has been the leading side in South Africa, and would have been expected to field a competitive team considering they don’t have all that many players in the national set-up.

It meant Saturday’s battle was shaping up to be a good contest for the tourists, but they will have to change their plans after fronting up to the Sharks on Wednesday night.

Following all of Tuesday’s drama, Rathbone held an impromptu virtual media conference to discuss the outbreak in the Bulls camp.

“The one positive thing is that they are looking at a postponement, but we need to look at dates that could fit both the British & Irish Lions as well as our Currie Cup schedule, and how we can shuffle that around. The good news, though, for the players is that it is currently a postponement, not a cancellation.

“A Lions tour comes around every 12 years, but the Currie Cup has log points, so it’s a tight balance between the two. But I’m sure as a whole and collective we could try and make something work in terms of the calendar.”

Rathbone clarified that the one date they are looking at is 20 July, just days before the first Test in Cape Town on 24 July.

Yet, that would be just the day before the Bulls are scheduled to play the Sharks in a Currie Cup game at Kings Park, while it would appear unlikely that the Lions would agree to a tour game so close to the first Test.

With this weekend’s two big warm-up matches for both the Lions and Boks having been impacted by the unpredictability of the pandemic, Rathbone was asked if he felt it would compromise the integrity of the tour.

“There are still a few weeks to go before the first Test match, so there’s more than enough time for both teams to prepare,” he commented.

“There hasn’t been word on the Georgia Test, whether it’s going ahead or not. It will be important for the Springboks’ planning to get a match or two in before the Test series.

“The British & Irish Lions have the Sharks to play, the SA A team and the Stormers, at the very least, and hopefully us. They will be fine in terms of their preparation.”

Rathbone added that there could be no blame attributed to the fact the Bulls endured this virus outbreak at a time when they hadn’t yet headed into a bubble environment, while reiterating that no blame – in hindsight – could be laid at the door of SA Rugby.

“The bubble was initially planned for 10 days and that got changed to five days. But there were reasons for that, and the five days in effect should be efficient. We saw a couple guys testing positive on Saturday already, so even if we were in a bubble the effects could have been worse.

“There is no right or wrong answer. Point number one is just safeguarding the players and their health …

“The amount of work that’s been done on SA Rugby’s side, together with SARES [SA Rugby Events Services], is unbelievable.

“You can’t really fault them on that. I don’t think anybody could have planned for this delta variant and how contagious that has been over the last few weeks in Gauteng.

“I can’t imagine anybody being able to fault the work SA Rugby’s done. It’s been impeccable in these trying times.

“Since the pandemic started last year, if you look at the amount of rugby we’ve actually been able to play through all of this, it’s unbelievable.

“Even with this latest outbreak in our system, they turned every stone to try to make the game happen.”

At the conclusion of the conference, Rathbone was asked what the overriding feeling and emotion was among the Bulls squad, particularly considering this disruption could deny many players a career highlight.

“The overriding feeling is obviously disappointment that the match couldn’t take place now. There is still a bit of hope, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime match and we’ve built a lot of our strategies and even a jersey launch around this match. It’s really disappointing, but you can’t plan or predict these sorts of things.”

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Craig Lewis