SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux says there was good reason to move ‘heaven and earth’ to ensure the British & Irish Lions tour received the go ahead, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
For the rugby industry – like many others – these have been, and still remain, uncertain times. However, even several weeks away from the arrival of the British & Irish Lions, the one certainty is that this will be a tour like no other.
The fact this iconic series will take place in South Africa in the midst of a global pandemic and possibly in front of few or no fans, means it is already assured of a place in rugby’s history books even before a ball has been kicked in anger.
In fact, just getting to the point of offering the closest thing to a green a light for the tour to proceed as originally planned in South Africa has required a herculean effort. The discussions around how, when and if the Lions tour would go ahead have involved more moving parts than those seen from a side-stepping Cheslin Kolbe weaving would-be defenders into knots.
A rather opportunistic offer from Australia quickly fell by the wayside, but the very real possibility of switching the tour to the northern hemisphere would have presented a rather bizarre playing field with the Boks becoming a touring team. A provisional ‘UK’ schedule did the rounds on social media and was believed to have some substance to it, which only added to a sentiment of acceptance.
In the end, though, as the UK grappled with its own pandemic challenges and could offer no guarantees over its own crowd attendances, and with a failure to secure financial support from the UK government, the winds of change blew back in South Africa’s direction.
With time running out, a decision was needed. Assurances were made and a swift about-turn in March ensured South Africa would welcome the traditional touring team to these shores. Regardless of the challenges and the undesirable but uncontrollable prospect of playing behind closed doors, the touring tradition will remain untarnished.
There could be no surefire solution, or magic wand waved to mitigate all risk, but this was seen by most as the best option in a list of imperfect alternatives.
Not everyone would be satisfied, but the likes of former Lions coaches Clive Woodward and Ian McGeechan were among the first to laud the decision as the correct one.
‘The tour had to take place this year or not at all,’ Woodward said after it was suggested the series be postponed to 2022. ‘Although playing it in the northern hemisphere seemed a serious option – and the possibility of limited crowds was appealing – it still didn’t feel quite right. South Africa would have become the touring team and the underdogs who needed the warm-up matches with the home unions as hosts. That would have changed the entire dynamic of what the Lions are about.’
Meanwhile, McGeechan insisted that regardless of the presence of fans – or lack thereof – the Lions remained a team that would ‘put a smile on faces and create the feel-good factor’.
‘The Lions are a touring entity, so playing games around South Africa maintains that sporting integrity, while going this year ensures the institution will not jeopardise its long-term future by interfering with the buildup to the next World Cup.’
Yet, not long after the ink had dried on the sign-off, the focus of questions understandably turned to whether there could be at least some form of concession for fan attendance.
The absence of a ‘live audience’ is still commonplace at events across the world, but it remains intrinsically at odds with the very nature of sport, which has been built on the principles of spectator appeal. Even pre-pandemic, declining stadium attendances were a major concern in the rugby industry, but the Lions tour was set to bring tens of thousands of travelling fans to South Africa.
That prospect – and its benefits to the tourism and hospitality sectors – will have to be sacrificed at the altar of safety regulations. Such is the way of the world. But, is there any hope that South Africans will realistically return to stadiums, even in limited numbers?
Although this is another subject where the goalposts have regularly shifted, SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux shares some of the plotting and planning that has gone on behind the scenes.
‘We have worked very closely with Sascoc on a Spectator Guidelines document that has been submitted to the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture to ensure the safe return of supporters to the venue. It would be a massive boost for everyone to have at least some fans in the venue but, either way, we will make it work,’ Roux tells SA Rugby magazine.
‘Tours by the British & Lions come round only once every three World Cups so we were determined to move heaven and earth to get it on. It’s a cruel twist of fate that we will be denied the significant financial boost the game was looking forward to, but as South Africans we know how to make a plan.’
Understandably, just to have the tour confirmed is a welcome relief for key stakeholders. Any concessions around proposed fan attendance lies with government ministries, but there is still money to be made from broadcast revenue. That figure could reportedly still amount to hundreds of millions, and after all the budget cuts and financial setbacks in 2020, this is manna from rugby heaven for the industry and SA Rugby.
SuperSport CEO Marc Jury tells SA Rugby magazine there is good reason to celebrate the arrival of the Lions.
‘First prize would be full stadiums with a sea of Springbok and Lions fans. But closed-doors sport is the new reality and it’s something we have accommodated with our broadcasts over the past 12 months.
‘We’ve had to innovate and change our entire production approach, but we believe we’ve found a happy middle ground that enables us to still push out compelling content, be it rugby or any other sport, even when played behind closed doors.’
With joint agreement for the tour to proceed in the scheduled playing window, the Springboks’ preparations have shifted into the next gear.
Local players headed into a series of alignment camps, while there were similar plans for overseas-based players, with assistant coach Felix Jones hosting sessions in the UK and France. Those in Japan took part via virtual meetings.
These sessions were a key part of the Springboks’ successful buildup to the 2019 World Cup, and the compelling Chasing the Sun documentary provided unique insight into the behind-the-scenes brainstorming that enabled the Boks to be so successful in Japan.
Such alignment camps had previously been just one of the key planning strategies that had become collateral damage in a Covid-19 climate that has limited gatherings and travel, but the Boks have finally been able to gather for meaningful preparation talks.
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber explained that due to the limited time available for the squad, it was essential for players get as much logistical and other relevant arrangements out of the way before the start of the training camps.
‘There’s a lot of excitement, from players to coaches and the management staff, to finally get together and kick-start our preparations for what promises to be a very busy and challenging international season.
‘A lot of background planning has already been done, but we are looking forward to shifting our focus and preparation into a higher level because time is of the essence. We have purposefully kept the groups small so we can drill in as many specifics as possible.
‘The players will get a lot of logistical, technical and tactical detail to absorb so by the time we’ve completed this alignment roundup, they will all be up to speed of what is required from them in their club and franchise games and the training camps leading up the Lions Test series,’ Nienaber added.
One way or another it’s full steam ahead.
For the Springboks, it’s been nearly 18 months since they last played, and it will be closer to nearly two years of inactivity for the national side when the world champs finally return to action with warm-up games.
The wait has been agonising for Bok fans and indeed for rugby lovers around the world, but the fact the Lions series has been given the go-ahead to proceed in South Africa is a credit to the work that has gone on behind the scenes.
SuperSport CEO Marc Jury on …
The tour receiving the green light to proceed
We’re thrilled. The Lions have such mystique and the Springbok-Lions traditions are so well entrenched that such a tour has a life all of its own. SuperSport is in the business of storytelling and this tour will add another chapter to one of rugby’s great storylines.
The challenges presented by the Springboks’ absence from action
Like everyone, we wanted to see how they would kick on after the wonderful 2019 World Cup win, but these are extraordinary times and sadly we, and all Boks fans weren’t allowed that pleasure. Having them back on our screens will be fantastic and for their return to be against the Lions makes it even more appealing.
Plans for broadcast innovations
We’re always looking for innovative ways to improve our storytelling. Frankly, anything that enhances a broadcast will be looked at. If we like it and we get buy-in from the federations, then we’ll go for it. In this instance we are currently finalising all of the production plans together with Saru.
*This feature appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, which is now on sale