Craziest Tour in 30 years

There have been bombs and assassinations on previous tours I have been on, and terrorist threats and even an earthquake. And full, Presidential level security with military convoys. But as I sit in my room on the 19th floor of the Sandton Sun overlooking deserted streets on the eve of curfew, this one feels stranger than any of them. 

Seven full PCR tests in ten days is the least of it. I have developed nose-bleeds now but have become close with the ladies running the operation on the top level of a multi-storey car park in Bryanston to the extent that I buy them muffins and I help the nervous and elderly with their registration forms.

Today we had news that England’s cricket team had been forced to select an entirely different 17-man squad 48-hours before the first ODI against Pakistan following seven positive tests. Nine uncapped players were called up in the middle of a round County Championship matches while the original squad went into isolation. These are extraordinary times.

The Springboks cancelled training, again, and delayed the announcement of the Test team to face Georgia in the second Test. Georgia also announce that they had four positive cases in their camp. The Blue Bulls announced a rash of positives in their camp so the British and Irish Lions match against them at Loftus Versveld on Saturday has been put ‘on hold.’ As has the Springboks-Georgia Test at the same venue the day before. 

This chaos may not be quite as chaotic as it seems. But it probably is. Everybody looks upwards to the ‘Medical Advisory Group’ (MAG) which, like so many other institutions around the world, doesn’t have the answers – but cannot afford to say so. When you sit at the head of the top table, with millions of people waiting for the answer, the answer cannot be: ‘We don’t know.’ 

Saturday’s match at Ellis Park was a fine and enjoyable spectacle of sport. The cream of northern hemisphere rugby should, and did, overpower their local opponents. Only afterwards was I willing to admit, as I did on Twitter, that it was like batchelor’s party in a cemetery. One of the great rugby arenas in the world reduced to a training field.

“I’ve never been here before,” said Welsh wing Josh Adams when I interviewed him following his four-try contribution to the Lions 56-14 victory. “It’s an incredible place, amazing, but I can only imagine what it would be like with those 60,000 empty seats filled with people. Hopefully I will experience it once in my lifetime.”

My role as ‘news and interviews’ man for talkSPORT during the tour requires a PCR test before every interview with the Lions. Conducted from a distance of four metres. Entry into the stadium requires another PCR test by SARU. The tests cannot be integrated. So I spend much of my reporting time driving between nasal swabs. 

The Lions players are seriously motivated by this tour. I wondered whether they might be ‘extra’ motivated to stay and persist with the tour by the fact that a joint venture between the Lions and SARU will see, for the first time, profits shared. Lions players will only be paid on a pro-rata basis, on how long the tour lasts, with those who started at the beginning and stayed until the end receiving around £47,000.

“I had no idea about that,” said Scotland captain, Stuart Hogg, with evident honesty. “It seems a fine idea that the Springboks and Lions share the pot but, honestly, all I care about – and the rest of the players – is the chance to play here and the chance to beat the Springboks.” 

Every player I have interviewed so far has expressed similar sentiments. Irish lock, Iain Henderson, who captains the midweek team against the Cell-C Sharks at Ellis Park on Wednesday, shared the view that rugby is their focus. But not in the naive, immature way that footballers see their sport. 

“It’s not normal, and we know that. We are guided by our experts and stick to the protocols, and if that means we can play rugby and entertain people, we’re very happy for that,” Henderson said.  

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