CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South African Rugby President Mark Alexander has accepted there will be no fans at stadiums for the British and Irish Lions series but is confident the COVID-19 protocols in place will allow all the scheduled games to go ahead.
The Lions, who will face the Springboks in three tests from July 24, have arrived in South Africa with the country gripped by a third wave of COVID-19 infections, prompting tightened restrictions including a 9 p.m. curfew.
The country, the worst-hit on the African continent in terms of recorded cases and deaths, reported almost 18,000 new cases on Saturday, approaching the peak of daily infections seen in a second wave in January.
The Springboks reported three positive COVID-19 cases in their camp on Sunday, though scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies was later cleared after a second test, which called the fate of the tour into question.
Alexander told South Africa's Sport24, however, that they were moving forward.
"I don't see things drastically changing overnight," he said. "We have to make peace with the fact that there won't be spectators, but the tour will go on, and we'll have all the games, even the provincial ones."
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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.
Alexander said that had the Lions series been cancelled and the Springboks went through another year without playing a test, it could have spelled the end of professional rugby in South Africa.
"If we did not play rugby this year, we would have closed our doors," he said. "South African rugby depends on generating money, of which 99.9% comes from playing.
"The more you cut back and if we lose money, it has an effect on everybody's budget all the way down from the Springboks to school rugby."
Alexander said the measures Lions tour organisers have put in place to safeguard players and team officials from COVID-19 will be enough to ensure it goes ahead successfully.
"Everybody in the bubble and around this tour has been vaccinated. The athletes' welfare is of paramount importance," he said
"We are living in difficult times, but we've spent hundreds of millions on this event, and we can't wish it away. We have to go on and make it work."
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(Reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Peter Rutherford)