Rugby-Gatland confident Lions tour can go ahead despite COVID challenges

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By Mark Gleeson 

  JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland is hopeful their tour of South Africa can get back on track after a day of drama and uncertainty as a COVID-19 outbreak in the squad left Wednesday’s match against the Sharks in the balance until the last minute. 

  Gatland said he was confident the test series against the Springboks, scheduled to start on July 24, would go ahead and that the tourists always expected they would be affected by COVID cases in a country hard hit by a third wave of infections. 

  The coach has no concerns over the viability of the eight-match, six-week tour on which this weekend’s game against the Bulls is Pretoria has been postponed, with the Lions not due to play again until next Wednesday. 

  "We’ve been incredible vigilant in terms of what we’ve done as a group, we are not sure where (the infections) have come from," Gatland told reporters after an emphatic 54-7 win over the Sharks. 

  "There were a number of hotel staff who tested positive when we arrived and had to be removed, so I’m not sure it’s come from that, but I know all our tests had been negative up until today," he added. 

  "We’ll just address it as it goes, we knew there would be certain challenges but we are hopeful we can get things back on track," Gatland said after his team's second handsome win of the tour. 

  Lions players spent up to eight hours in their hotel rooms, were tested twice for the novel coronavirus and only found out 50 minutes before kickoff that the game at Ellis Park would go ahead after two positive cases in the camp. 

  Gatland put together a makeshift backline – including three players carrying knocks – to comprehensively beat the Sharks but left 12 players and staff self-isolating after close contact, and facing re-testing on Thursday. 

  "It been a quite surreal day and a real challenge considering staff and players were in our rooms until two hours before kickoff, we didn’t get our results back until half an hour before that and then had to make a changes," Gatland added. 

  "But I’m incredibly proud of the players and the performance and how they adjusted. I came away today thinking that, more than the performance and the group, I’m really proud of the togetherness of the group and how much they wanted to go out there, perform and play and wear this jersey. 

  "My message to the players is that let’s use it as a positive, that whatever is thrown at us we can deal with it. Nothing is going to phase us. We just had to go with the flow and adjust," Gatland said. 

  (Editing by Ed Osmond) 

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