Exclusive: Growing support for Australia to host Lions tour due to prospect of 100 per cent attendance

Gavin Mairs
·7-min read
Lions logo - Exclusive: Growing support for Australia to host Lions tour due to prospect of 100 per cent attendance - PA
Lions logo - Exclusive: Growing support for Australia to host Lions tour due to prospect of 100 per cent attendance - PA

There is growing support for staging the British and Irish Lions series against South Africa in Australia following the latest projections that the matches could potentially be played Down Under in front of capacity crowds.

The blueprint for hosting the tour in Australia is expected to be considered by the Lions board in detail for the first time at a meeting on Thursday.

And after an initially lukewarm response to Rugby Australia's offer last month to host the eight-game tour, there now appears to be momentum behind the option from both administrators and players.

It is understood that the United Arab Emirates, which is second only to Israel in the world’s fastest Covid vaccination roll-outs, is also interested in hosting the tour, according to several sources, although the Lions have yet to receive a formal offer.

However, it is the offer by Australia, which has nearly zero community transition cases and has government support to host major sporting events with crowds that is now coming under serious consideration, given the complications of proceeding with the tour as scheduled to South Africa or hosting it in the UK and Ireland.

Hamish McLennan, the chairman of Rugby Australia, told Telegraph Sport they were in a position to deliver the closest thing to a Lions tour given the unique circumstances posed by the pandemic.

The plan would be to operate the tour from a “hub” with the Lions and South Africa based in Sydney or Perth. Potential Test venues would be Perth (the 65,000-capacity Optus Stadium), Brisbane (the 52,500-capacity Suncorp Stadium) and Sydney (the 83,500-capacity Stadium Australia and 48,000-capacity Sydney Cricket Ground).

Rugby Australia is confident that the Test matches would sell out given the number of expats in Australia from both the UK and Ireland and South Africa.

“If we sold out Sydney or Perth, which is achievable if we are allowed to have full crowds, it would just be mind-blowing for the players,” McLennan said. “I know lockdown in the UK has been tough but in Sydney life is relatively normal. We can successfully host this.”

Analysis - How a Lions tour to Australia would work

Amid the grimness and uncertainty of the current lockdowns, it seems impossible to imagine a Lions series against South Africa going ahead this summer with matches played at packed stadiums against the backdrop of the vibrancy and colour of a traditional tour.

And yet, 10,500 miles away in the offices of Rugby Australia in Sydney, planning is already at an advanced stage to help enable such a scenario to become a reality.

Despite a lukewarm reception to its initial offer of hosting the tour last month, RA has added detail to its plans, which are due to be discussed in detail for the first time at a Lions board meeting on Thursday.

The revelation of the blueprint of the plan to host the tour in the country which has almost zero cases of community transmission makes for compelling reading.

A postponement of the tour, which is South Africa’s preferred option, has effectively been ruled out, the board has been agonising over two options. The first is to proceed with the tour as planned, which has the safety net of financial commitments already in place, but with the knowledge that the matches are likely to be behind closed doors and with the added complication of touring South Africa given the prevalence of the Covid-19 variant there.

Yet, the other contingency plan – to host the “tour” in the UK and Ireland – is also laced with risk. Despite the success of the vaccine roll-out there still is no guarantee that capacity crowds will be permitted at stadiums by July and question marks remain about whether South Africa teams would be permitted to travel here given the variant risk.

Given the cost of hosting the series in the UK, without significant crowds the business plan alone becomes untenable, while Sky Sports, the biggest commercial partner, would be within its rights to demand a reduction in its fee, given it purchased a “tour” of South Africa.

The biggest drawback to the UK and Ireland option, however, is not crowds nor finances but the detrimental impact it would have on the touring heritage of the Lions. Willie John McBride, the most famous Lion of all, is among those who has warned the touring ethos would be “damaged forever” if the games were played at home. Enough said.

That is why the Australia option, after a muted response, appears to be gaining traction within the board, with the clock ticking on a decision.

Hamish McLennan, who was appointed RA’s chairman last year, told Telegraph Sport that the offer was a “genuine and unconditional” one to ensure that an “important rugby tradition” is preserved.

Any suggestion that its offer was merely a PR move to garner support for its bid to host the 2027 World Cup is misplaced. McLennan is serious.

Significantly, there appears to be Australian state government support, too. “The New South Wales government is committed to hosting and running sports of all types and are probably the best at doing it in the world,” McLennan said.

“I think the players would really enjoy it and I am confident we could also deliver a really decent cheque back to South Africa and the Lions. We will get it sorted if we are told by April.”

The plan would be to operate the tour from a “hub” with the Lions and South Africa based in Sydney or Perth. Potential Test venues would be Perth (the 65,000-capacity Optus Stadium), Brisbane (the 52,500-capacity Suncorp Stadium) and Sydney (the 83,500-capacity Stadium Australia and 48,000-capacity Sydney Cricket Ground).

The RA modelling for a tour in Australia is based on a conservative project that stadiums will be allowed to be at 50 per cent capacity but there is optimism the matches could be played in front of full houses.

With significant UK and South African expat communities in the country, there has already been a huge interest in the Australian rugby community to host the tour.

The experiences of playing Tri-Nations matches last year and other major sporting events gives the RA the confidence to predict a tour could go ahead as normally as possible while also meeting the financial demands of the Lions and the South Africa Rugby Union.

Argentina celebrating their 2020 win over New Zealand in Sydney - GETTY IMAGES
Argentina celebrating their 2020 win over New Zealand in Sydney - GETTY IMAGES

McLennan is adamant that the hurdles to staging the tour, including adapting the two-week quarantine to enter the country, can be overcome and, critically, offer the players the closest experience to a traditional Lions tour.

“It is an evolving situation but if you look at what we did with New Zealand and Argentina last year, we created ‘bubbles’ where they were able to train and quarantine and we would do the same for the Lions and South Africa,” McLennan added.

“There was no diminishment in their training capabilities. Take Argentina, they knocked off the All Blacks for the first time ever and everyone had a great time. We just need a commitment and then we can get it organised.”

RA is flexible on the fixture schedule, with Super Rugby sides and potentially even Australia being lined up as opponents for the Lions.

The revenue from ticket sales would more than make up for any potential hit from the loss of any sponsors. And if the Australian government underwrote liabilities in the event of a short-notice lockdown that prevented crowds from attending Test matches, a Lions tour Down Under this summer could become a reality.

With the players having an input into the decision, the prospect of a tour in almost normal conditions once they have gone through the training quarantine is understood to be proving attractive.