Exclusive: Lions tour of South Africa to proceed as originally scheduled in July and August 2021

Gavin Mairs
The Telegraph
Warren Gatland has agreed to become head coach of the British and Irish Lions for the tour to South Africa in 2021. - PA
Warren Gatland has agreed to become head coach of the British and Irish Lions for the tour to South Africa in 2021. - PA

The British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa is to proceed as originally scheduled in July and August next year despite the on-going uncertainty over the future global calendar and a potential clash with the Tokyo Olympics, Telegraph Sport can reveal.

The preparations for the eight-game tour had been on hold since March after a World Rugby working group, featuring representatives from both the northern and southern hemisphere unions, drew up proposals to move the window for Test matches in July to October.

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The Lions and the South Africa Rugby Union had been prepared to push their tour back to September next year if it enabled an agreement to be reached between the unions and clubs over a restructured calendar, including the plan for a new international series in October and November.

But although there is no sign yet of a deal being struck after both the English and French clubs raised objections to the July window being moved, it is understood that following conference calls last week, both parties have conceded that the Lions tour should go ahead as planned.

Official confirmation is expected next week and ticket and travel packages for the tour will go on sale next month, with over 30,000 supporters expected to travel to South Africa for what is the most lucrative rugby tournament beside the World Cup.

“We had to make a call on this now as we were running out of time,” said one source. “People need to move on tickets, flights and hotel bookings and it is so important to South Africa to have certainty now given the financial importance of the tour to them at a time when we are all struggling with the impact of Covid-19.”

There was support within the unions to push the tour back to September to take the pressure off the clubs in terms of fixture schedule next year while there were also concerns about the commercial impact of the three Test matches between South Africa and the Lions overlapping with the Olympics following the rescheduling of the Tokyo Games.

However it is understood that with the English clubs preferring to retain the original tour dates, a consensus has been reached to allow a greater focus to be put on the talks over the global calendar.  

Rugby Nerd REFERRAL (article)
Rugby Nerd REFERRAL (article)

The decision will come as great relief to Lions head coach Warren Gatland, whose own preparations for the tour, including the appointment of a coaching and backroom staff had also been put on hold.

It is also understood that Premiership Rugby have agreed that despite the fixture overload caused by the lockdown, their 20/21 season will still finish as scheduled on June 26 to ensure there is no overlap with the Lions tour.

That will require the clubs to start their new season in November, even though this season’s Premiership final is now likely to be held on Oct 24.

The clubs are also resigned to playing the Premiership schedule right through the international windows, including the Six Nations, to enable their domestic campaign to be completed before the Lions depart for South Africa on June 27.

It is seen as a compromise gesture by the clubs, who are due to unveil their own blueprint of a global season later this week. The clubs hope to reach an agreement which would facilitate the union’s aim of creating a new international series but while retaining the Test window in July.

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