Lions tour: Sharks test crucial with South Africa plans uncertain

·2-min read
Lions coach Warren Gatland has his hands full with chaotic preparations for the first Test (Getty Images)
Lions coach Warren Gatland has his hands full with chaotic preparations for the first Test (Getty Images)

The British and Irish Lions take on the Sharks in Johannesburg tonight in a vital tour match with the remainder of their trip to South Africa in a state of uncertainty.

Today, confirmation was expected that the Springboks’ Second Test against Georgia on Friday is off. The Boks’ entire squad is in isolation following 12 positive Covid tests in the camp, including five players and the head coach, Jacques Nienaber.

That is the second game to be called off this weekend, after the Lions’ tour match against the Bulls was put “on hold”, after the hosts recorded five positive cases.

So while the Lions have pottered along quietly in South Africa, winning their first game well, Covid-19 has been causing carnage among their opponents (both domestic and international).

With no rugby currently scheduled this weekend, what happens next is anyone’s guess. Could the Lions play Georgia? It has long been expected that the Lions would decamp to Cape Town this weekend, after the Bulls game, and stay there for the rest of the tour, rather than returning to Johannesburg (the epicentre of the virus in South Africa) for the final two Tests.

But that has still not been confirmed. The Bulls are suggesting rescheduling their fixture against the Lions for July 20, four days before the First Test.

With just 37 players in the Lions squad (23 of whom would be required on the Saturday, meaning nine would need to double up), this would be impractical for the tourists (flying in extra players, as in 2017, would be almost impossible in Covid times).

The scheduling of this tour, with those slots not filled, was very deliberate. But the TV rights and sponsorship deals are for an eight-match tour, meaning every effort will be made to reschedule the match.

All this makes each game that the Lions do play that bit more important. After tonight’s game, the Lions have just two more confirmed matches in the schedule before the First Test in 17 days’ time.

Every player who takes the field tonight may not get many more opportunities to stake their claim for a Test place. So those who have had slow starts to the tour — like debutant Tom Curry, who has had a pec injury, or Anthony Watson, who made a brief appearance off the bench against Japan in Edinburgh — need to make their mark.

Other Englishmen desperate to make an impression will be Saracens’ Mako Vunipola and Elliot Daly, who offers flexibility from the bench. In two decent team performances so far, no man has played himself out of Test selection yet and back-row Curry and wing Watson both play in desperately competitive positions, where Lions head coach Warren Gatland has options aplenty.

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