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The Lions landed in locked-down South Africa today following a weekend of chaos on and off the field that leaves the tour in a state of uncertainty.
It was a nightmarish weekend as the Lions suffered tour-ending injuries to captain Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric; the Springboks recorded positive Covid-19 cases; and South Africa — in the midst of an aggressive third wave of the virus — was placed back in Level 4 lockdown by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Organisers have considered moving more of the tour from Johannesburg — Gauteng is being badly affected by the third wave, with 11,000 new cases recorded on Friday alone — to Cape Town. As things stand, the Lions are due to play five matches in Gauteng, including two Tests and this Saturday's tour opener against Emirates Lions, and three in Cape Town, including the First Test on July 24.
The new lockdown rules prohibit the sale of alcohol and will see schools close. Professional sport is allowed to continue behind closed doors (the Lions series long lost hope of welcoming even local fans), with new conditions including non-playing members of the touring party being banned from entering stadiums to watch games.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland said on Saturday that they had been given "assurances" that the series would go ahead. "We have had assurances that if they do go into another lockdown or cancel sport, that it won't effect the Lions in terms of training, preparation and the matches," he said.
As an illustration of the troubled situation in South Africa, the Springboks were yesterday forced to cancel training and isolate their entire squad after three players — Vincent Koch, Herschel Jantjes and Sbu Nkosi — tested positive for Covid-19. Koch only joined the camp late last week, after completing the season with Saracens.
The Springboks are due to play Georgia this Friday, their first match since beating England in the 2019 World Cup. Rassie Erasmus, the Boks' director of rugby, expressed confidence that the Lions tour and the Georgia game would be able to go ahead. He also said that his players had been following Covid protocols closely.
The Lions flew from Edinburgh to Johannesburg last night, landing this morning, after a disruptive weekend playing their first home match for 16 years. The Lions beat Japan 28-10 at Murrayfield, putting in a pleasing performance that included four tries.
But the cost of the event, designed as a pre-tour money-spinner, was great. Jones and Tipuric both left the field in the first half with shoulder injuries, while Gatland revealed that No8 Jack Conan had played with a hamstring injury.
Jones and Tipuric were replaced in the squad by their Wales team-mates Adam Beard and Josh Navidi, while Ireland's Conor Murray was named as the new tour captain.
Murray's ascension to the captaincy was a surprise — even to the player himself.
"It's something that is an unbelievable honour, something that I never thought would be possible," he said.
Murray has never even captained Ireland in 84 Tests, but is a Lions veteran (this is his third tour) and is well-regarded by his colleagues. He beat Wales's Ken Owens and England's Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje to the captaincy, perhaps because he is one of few certain starters in the squad.
Jones is a grievous loss, and leaves Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes competing to start alongside Itoje in the second row for the First Test.