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decision looming Lions tour on a knife-edge once more as South Africa heads for Covid-19 'catastrophe'

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Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki will play in the centre of the Lions against Japan on Saturday.
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki will play in the centre of the Lions against Japan on Saturday. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki will play in the centre of the Lions against Japan on Saturday. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

The British and Irish Lions are heading to a region on the cusp of a Covid-19 "catastrophe" as South Africa braces itself for the third wave of its pandemic.

A leading medic has warned that the situation in the Gauteng province, where Warren Gatland's squad will arrive and play their first four matches is getting more and more worrying by the day after 7,421, 32pc of the national figure, were reported on Tuesday.

The Lions will be fully vaccinated by the time they land, while the Springboks are also to receive vaccines ahead of the three-Test series that runs from July 24-August 8.

Both teams will have their contact with the community limited by residing in biosecure bubbles throughout the tour, but the rising case numbers will increase pressure on both squads to retain the integrity of those bubbles.

Professor Francois Ventor, head of the Ezintha Health Unit at Wits University, warned that things are getting worse.

“It is a catastrophe in Gauteng, as we enter the third wave with record new infections essentially unvaccinated, and will be far worse when the Lions arrive because hospitalisations and deaths lag new infections by two and three weeks”, he told South African media outlet The Daily Maverick.

“The reasons for the severity of this wave is unclear, but may be partly because the Beta variant (identified in SA at the end of 2020) appears to break through natural or vaccine immunity more easily.

“Vaccines work to stop hospitalisation and death, even against the Beta variant, but we are vaccinating so slowly, we will see several waves over the next few years before we see adequate protection.”

The spectre of the Covid-19 pandemic has loomed over this tour for more than a year. SA Rugby and the Lions considered moving the games to the United Kingdom and to Australia before deciding to proceed with a revised version of their original plan to play the games behind closed doors in South Africa.

However, Professor Venter warned that the series proceeding against the back-drop of rising case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths could leave a sour taste and lead to a backlash.

“The optics of a rugby tour continuing during this crisis are troubling,” Venter said.

“I think that it is possible to run the tour safely, especially as the teams and support staff are vaccinated and stadiums are outdoors, and the managers probably learnt from other outbreaks involving sports teams.

“The Springbok squad were vaccinated ahead of the elderly and those with comorbidities, and played no role in vaccine advocacy despite being at the front of the queue, so there may be criticism there.”

The Lions, who have seven Ireland internationals on board, play Japan in front of 16,000 fans at Murrayfield this Saturday before leaving for South Africa.

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