The British and Irish Lions are intent on completing their tour to South Africa despite an escalating coronavirus crisis that continues to jeopardise the event.
Warren Gatland’s men must face the Sharks for the second time in four days after they emerged as the only opposition available for Saturday’s fixture in Pretoria once the Bulls pulled out because of Covid.
The Lions romped the first meeting 54-7 and given that an additional seven players could leave self-isolation at the team hotel in Johannesburg and become available on Friday, then another stroll will be expected at Loftus Versfeld.
Managing director Ben Calveley revealed that the unnamed player who produced a positive test on Wednesday, forcing an additional six players into quarantine, has since tested negative.
If that result is confirmed on Friday, then he and his six close contacts will be able to rejoin the squad. The member of Gatland’s management team who also tested positive is a confirmed case, meaning two players must stay in self-isolation.
While the outlook for the Lions appears slightly brighter, the entire 46-strong Springboks party are contending with a far more serious outbreak that has forced the cancellation of their second Test against Georgia on Friday.
Calveley insists that despite growing concerns over the wisdom of proceeding with the tour in a nation that is experiencing an escalating third wave of the pandemic, it will proceed as scheduled.
“We are here in South Africa,” said Calveley, who definitively ruled out relocating the tour to the UK, where full crowds will soon be possible, and confirmed that not everyone in the travelling party has been double jabbed.
“We made a decision back in March that we would make the tour work here and we are determined to make it work. There are absolutely no plans to deviate from that strategy.
“What I would say is that it’s a challenge. I’m definitely not going to sit here and say that this is easy. We’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure this tour will go ahead. We are determined to make it successful.”
On Sunday the Lions travel to Cape Town, where the pandemic has less of a foothold than the Gauteng region that encompasses Johannesburg and Pretoria.
They play fixtures against South Africa A, who are shaping up to be their first meaningful opposition of the tour, and the Stormers before the first Test takes place at Cape Town Stadium on July 24.
Plans to move the second and third Tests to the same city to avoid the worst of the pandemic appear to have been put on hold, although Calveley insists contingencies are being drawn up “all the time”.
Little will be gained by another overwhelming win against the Sharks, who fulfil all the anti-Covid requirements but whose resources will be severely stretched by a second outing in four days having already lost nine players to the Springboks squad.
Calveley insists the fixture has been organised to continue the Lions’ preparations for the Test series and not to honour broadcasting deals.
“We were scheduled to play a fixture on Saturday, albeit against the Bulls not the Sharks,” Calveley said.
“We came into this country to play rugby matches, not to sit in bio-secure bubbles. We want to play the matches so that we can be ready to take on the Springboks in a Test series. That was very much the driver behind the decision to go ahead on Saturday.”
How the virus entered the Lions’ camp in Johannesburg remains a mystery.
“We are protected as much as we can be because there is no one coming in and out of our facility,” Calveley said.
“We have the players, the management team, the hotel staff – everyone here lives in the bubble, no one comes and goes.
“The hotel staff don’t go home in the evenings. They live on site. And there are very few hotel staff. Our bubble is about as secure as it can be.”