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The Lions will tour South Africa as planned next summer, despite a direct clash with the rescheduled Olympics and uncertainty over rugby’s global season plans.
An announcement on Wednesday confirmed that the original schedule would remain in place, which means that Warren Gatland will depart with his British and Irish squad in late June, returning home in the second week of August.
The Lions will gear up to face the world champion Springboks in a three-Test series, in the hope that the coronavirus crisis does not force a belated postponement.
Shane Williams and Mike Phillips (right) after victory in the third Test in South Africa in 2009
Home unions officials and their South African counterparts have resolved to press ahead with the eight-match itinerary after speculation that the tour would be shifted back to next autumn.
But with the global season plans — involving the prospect of an extended Test window in October and November each year — held up by opposition within the club game, the decision has been made to stick with Plan A for the sport’s blue-riband event in 2021.
Organisers are so bullish about the tour’s appeal that they have no concerns the Tokyo Olympics take place in the same period as the fixtures in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Soweto.
The British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa has been confirmed for July and August 2021
An estimated 20,000 supporters have already registered their interest in making the trip, and the expectation is that up to twice that number will eventually purchase packages.
The Lions will warm up with a Test against Japan at Murrayfield on Sunday, June 27 — the day before Gatland and his squad fly to Cape Town for the tour opener against the Stormers on July 3.
Meanwhile, South Africa are due to play a preparatory Test to prevent going into the series undercooked.
There is a possibility that the Boks will go into their warm-up match having not played since putting England to the sword in Yokohama last November, to claim the Webb Ellis Cup.
The side will face World Champions South Africa next summer immediately after seasons ends
LIONS TOUR TO SOUTH AFRICA DATES
Saturday July 3: British & Irish Lions v DHL Stormers – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Wednesday July 7: British & Irish Lions v South Africa ‘Invitational’ – Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Saturday July 10: British & Irish Lions v Cell C Sharks – Jonsson Kings Park, Durban
Wednesday July 14: British & Irish Lions v South Africa ‘A’ Team – Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
Saturday July 17: British & Irish Lions v Vodacom Bulls – Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Saturday July 24 (1st Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
Saturday July 31 (2nd Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Saturday August 7 (3rd Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg
However, the latest indications are that this year’s Rugby Championship will go ahead in the autumn with all four teams — Argentina, Australia, the All Blacks and South Africa — contesting the annual southern hemisphere showpiece in New Zealand, where crowds are already permitted again.
The global season negotiations continue behind the scenes, and it is understood that a vote will take place at the end of this month.
Those involved remain confident that while implementation of a new, integrated fixture model has been disputed, it can be agreed in time to be take effect from late 2021 or early 2022.
On the domestic front, Premiership clubs are optimistic that they will be allowed to welcome back fans, in carefully controlled numbers, from the start of September.
When the league resumes on August 14, the first four rounds of matches will be played behind closed doors. But hopes are rising that, from then on, socially distanced crowds should be permitted, subject to agreement about the responsibility for keeping spectators spaced out.
Premiership Rugby confirmed on Wednesday that seven players are in isolation after testing positive for Covid-19. On Monday, a total of 856 players and staff were tested and just nine came back positive — two of them non-playing staff.
All those found to be positive, along with close contacts, have to go into isolation and are reassessed. Exeter confirmed that one of their players is now in isolation.
Last week, 804 tests were carried out, with 10 people found to be positive, including six players.
Boss Warren Gatland (right) will again have to manage a quick turnaround for his players