Tonight, the Lions play their third match of the 2021 tour. There’s no guarantee they’ll play another as the pandemic refuses to bend to the schedulers’ will.
This is supposed to be special for the players. In truth, their dream is turning into a bit of a nightmare.
Taking the tour to South Africa was always a risk, but doing so as the country headed into its third wave was crazy.
The Lions are locked away from the public, unable to engage with the locality. They have strict protocols and so far they’ve managed to keep the Delta variant outside of the four walls of their hotel.
They leave the bubble only to train, they are based only in two cities. Their matches take place behind closed doors.
The Springboks are also in camp in the same city, but for the second week their bubble has been breached.
Yesterday they reported 11 cases. Four players — Handré Pollard, Frans Malherbe, Marvin Orie and Frans Steyn — joined Lood de Jager, who tested positive on Monday, and six members of the management, including head coach Jacques Nienaber and one masseuse.
Georgia, who South Africa are due to play for the second time on Friday, have four positive cases in their camp, while the Bulls of Pretoria have five positive cases.
Their match against the Lions is now off, while the Boks v Georgia is in major doubt. The Lions are looking at finding a new opponent for the weekend or perhaps rescheduling the Bulls for later in the tour.
After the Bulls, they’re down to play South Africa ‘A’ in a week’s time. Those players will be drawn from the Springbok bubble, so there’s no certainty that that match will be allowed to take place either.
Serious questions need to be asked about the integrity of the South African bubble, about whether the world champions are adhering to the same level of intense restrictions as their guests, who are holed up in a hotel a couple of thousand miles from home.
At the end of the day, it’s small beer. Hospitals in Gauteng are full and yesterday the Rainbow Nation recorded more deaths in a single day, 457, than any day since February.
The Lions have been vaccinated, while all of the Springboks were offered vaccines. The people working at their hotels are highly unlikely to have been vaccinated, and the same goes for the ancillary staff needed to pull the games off. This all feels rather unnecessary.
Which is a shame. Tonight’s game is interesting. The Sharks are without their Springboks, but they’re a better side than the Sigma Lions, who were awful on Saturday.
By full-time, all 37 of Warren Gatland’s team will have donned the famous red jersey at least once. After this, there are no guarantees — particularly given the grave uncertainty around the whole event.
The thing is, these Lions are looking pretty good and the competition for places is as high as it has been for a while.
Tom Curry may have laughed it off at yesterday’s press conference, but he, Josh Navidi and Sam Simmonds are playing for their places, while captain Iain Henderson has a real shout at starting that first Test in 17 days’ time.
Likewise Bundee Aki, who offers Gatland the midfield directness sorely lacking with Owen Farrell in the No.12 shirt on Saturday.
Dan Biggar will relish having the Ireland centre as an out-ball as he looks to embellish his series credentials.
With Robbie Henshaw back running, Elliot Daly has a chance to stake a claim at outside centre — the back three are all Test contenders and the front-row all have an opportunity to play their way into contention.
Tadhg Beirne may get a shot in the second-row, and Jack Conan needs to double down on his impressive showing against Japan.
Tour captain Conor Murray has a chance to show he can shine under the scrutiny.
It matters dearly to these players who have poured their hearts and souls into making the plane. What a shame it’s falling down around them.