The British and Irish Lions’ 2021 South Africa tour will kick off in Cape Town just seven days after the Gallagher Premiership final.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland has already voiced concerns over sufficient preparation time for his squad and Premiership Rugby has confirmed it will not rearrange their showpiece season finale.
The Lions’ official confirmation of an eight-match itinerary means an opening fixture scheduled for the Saturday after England’s top two clubs go head-to-head at Twickenham.
— Neil Back MBE (@NeilBack) December 4, 2019
Premiership Rugby said later on Wednesday that they will not bring forward the Premiership final by a week in 2021, following the Guinness PRO14’s example.
It is understood that as part of their tour build-up, the Lions would like to play a game – potentially on June 26 and possibly against the Barbarians – before departure.
But Premiership Rugby said it had reached agreement with the RFU and RPA (Rugby Players Association) over the Premiership’s season structure more than 12 months ago “which gave everyone clarity on the future”.
A Premiership Rugby spokesperson said: “This joint agreement, which included a number of player welfare initiatives, detailed the dates of the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Finals in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
“The 2021 Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final will be on June 26 at Twickenham Stadium, as we re-confirmed to the Lions some weeks ago.
“Talks are not ongoing over this issue, and we are glad to have the opportunity to confirm that so any doubts can be removed.”
Premiership Rugby said it welcomed confirmation of the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa, adding: “Since 1997 Premiership Rugby and its clubs have been incredible supporters of the Lions, providing 124 players for those tours.
“We wish the Lions every success in South Africa when again we expect our clubs to supply a large number of players for the trip to play the world champions.”
The Lions’ 2017 New Zealand tour saw them leave London two days after the Premiership final, arrive in Auckland on the Wednesday and then play their first game little more than 72 hours later.
While jet-lag and time zones will not be anywhere as big a problem travelling to South Africa, a full week’s preparation with his entire squad – as opposed to staggered arrivals because of domestic finals – would be like gold dust for Gatland.
Two of the three Tests against newly-crowned world champions South Africa will be staged at altitude in Johannesburg.
The first Test is at FNB Stadium, which borders Soweto and was used for the 2010 football World Cup final, and the third at Ellis Park, with Cape Town Stadium – another World Cup venue – hosting the second Test.
The three selected Test match arenas have a combined capacity of just under 205,000.
There are no midweek games between Tests, with the Lions also facing three Super Rugby teams – Stormers, Sharks and Bulls – plus South Africa A and a South African invitational team.
The tour begins on July 3, culminating in the third Springboks clash five weeks later.
The schedule is two matches less than recent 10-game Lions tours, and it will encompass visits to Cape Town, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban, Nelspruit and Pretoria.
— Jason Leonard (@JasonLeonard114) December 4, 2019
Gatland, who will be Lions boss for a third successive tour following Australia 2013 and New Zealand two years ago, said: “I am absolutely thrilled with how this schedule looks.
“Touring South Africa is always a huge challenge, not only from a rugby perspective, but also in terms of the venues and the conditions facing the players.
“We are very comfortable that three of the games, two of which are Test matches, will be played at altitude. Our schedule falls in a way to allow us to start at sea level before building up and acclimatising to the unique environment that playing at altitude presents.
“Ensuring the team are absolutely primed for the Test matches is a critical element of any Lions tour, and I am confident the quality of opposition we will face in the opening weeks will get us ready to take on the Springboks.”
The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers are all tough sides and present different challenges, which is exactly what we want.”
Lions’ 2021 tour: July 3 – Stormers (Cape Town), 7 – South Africa ‘Invitational’ – Port Elizabeth, 10 – Sharks (Durban), 14 – South Africa A (Nelspruit), 17 – Bulls (Pretoria), 24 – South Africa (Johannesburg), 31 – South Africa (Cape Town), August 7 – South Africa (Johannesburg).