By Mark Gleeson
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber believes the British and Irish Lions tour should go ahead despite a third wave of COVID-19 infections which caused the country to go into a harsher lockdown on Sunday.
The Springboks team and the touring side are being protected by strict safety protocols in a bio-bubble environment.
"It should go ahead because of the (safe) environment that has been established for both teams. I’m not an expert on COVID and viruses, but I think everyone is trying to mitigate the risk of infections as much as they can," Nienaber told a news conference on Tuesday.
"From the Springboks' side, there is not a player that doesn’t want to participate in this tour because it is such a special tour and it only comes around every 12 years. You’ll be lucky as a Springbok to play against the Lions once in your career, so everybody is trying their utmost best to stay virus free, COVID free.
Nienaber acknowledged that it was impossible to remove all risks.
"I cannot see that the tour is in jeopardy, we are operating as normal as we can in these COVID times in our environment," he said.
The Lions arrived in Johannesburg on Monday to a bleak scenario in South Africa, where the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant led President Cyril Ramaphosa to tighten restrictions for 14 days.
The touring party will play their opening game in Johannesburg, one of the epicentres of the latest outbreak, on Saturday and stay in the Gauteng province for two more matches before heading to Cape Town.
The tour, usually accompanied by the backdrop of a festive atmosphere created by thousands of red-clad travelling fans, will be played in empty stadiums with the teams locked away in their hotels.
The Springboks have not played a test since winning the Rugby World Cup in November 2019 and the resulting loss of revenue forced SA Rugby to shave R1.2-billion ($84.12 million) off their budget for 2020.
SA Rugby president Mark Alexander said that had the Lions series been cancelled and the Springboks gone through another year without playing a test, it could have spelled the end of professional rugby in South Africa.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)