Jason Leonard, the chairman of the British and Irish Lions, says he still hopes it will be possible for supporters to travel from the UK and Ireland to attend the tour matches in South Africa this summer.
The South Africa Rugby Union, as part of a multi-sport group, has lodged a request with its government to allow 50 per cent spectator capacity for major events this summer, including the eight matches scheduled for the Lions tour.
South Africa is currently on the UK’s “red list” of banned countries for international travel, but Leonard says that the Lions remain hopeful that supporters will be able to travel if the restrictions are lifted before the tour commences in July.
Restrictions on some international travel are likely to be lifted on May 17 and the travel industry is awaiting an update from the Government’s global travel task force on Monday – a week earlier than expected. Leonard said that while the situation remained fluid and uncertain, the Lions remained optimistic that the “sea of red” supporters would be able to travel.
“Definitely, we’re hoping that there will be crowds,” Leonard said. “We would hope that would be UK and Ireland fans as well. We’re hoping as we move down the line in a few months’ time that could well be possible, everyone involved would obviously love fans in the stadium, our fans as well.
“This is a big thing that the South African union is talking with their government about. We are hoping – and we are still a few months away – that this could take place in front of spectators. How many remains to be seen at this moment in time.”
The Lions generate around £6 million profit on travel packages to help cover the £18 million cost of the tour. It is understood that just under 10,000 supporters have already signed up for travel packages with the Lions’ official travel company, Lions Rugby Travel, while more than 30,000 fans in total were due to travel before the pandemic struck.
Lions Rugby Travel sent out correspondence to its clients on Thursday, informing them that if fans wished to retain their booking, they could do so without any risk, as full refunds will still be available.
Alternative options will give supporters the opportunity for priority booking for the tour of Australia in 2025 or a full refund now. “We appreciate that each Lions fan is in a different situation, in terms of their intention, desire and ability to travel. Everyone is doing all they can in the coming weeks to ensure the best possible scenario is in place,” said Justin Hopwood, chief commercial officer of Lions Rugby Travel.
“Our priority is to ensure that they can be part of the Lions in the way that works best for them and under the restrictions we all face, either for this tour or in the future, so we have created a number of options for them to choose from.
“For those that still want to go, they are being given a priority window to book a new ticket-inclusive travel package to South Africa should we be in a position to be able to offer them, and where we consider it is responsible, practical and safe to do so.”
Even if supporters are able to travel, Leonard admits the tour will be unlike any before. The schedule is likely to be revised, with Johannesburg and Cape Town now likely to be the two bases for the tour.
The concept of the Lions players visiting communities and enjoying nights out is also not likely to be possible.
“We’re looking at all options,” Leonard added. “The only thing that’s 100 per cent is we’re not going to have a traditional Lions tour in whatever shape or form.
“We won’t get the tour we want, South Africa won’t get the tour they want, the players most probably won’t get the tour they want and the fans won’t get the fan experience they want.”