Lions tour under Covid cloud as entire Springbok squad isolates after outbreak
Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions touch down in South Africa today with a new captain and the tour under a Covid cloud.
Three Springboks yesterday tested positive and the whole squad has been placed into self-isolation.
Concerns are heightened by the fact one of the three is Vincent Koch, who last week played in a Saracens front five that included three Lions.
The tourists play their first match in Johannesburg in five days but lockdown measures across the country were tightened last night.
Rising infection rates in the province of Gauteng, where the first three games are scheduled to be played, are causing such concern that the whole tour could be moved to Cape Town.
Gatland’s squad, now led by Conor Murray in the absence of Alun Wyn Jones, are preparing for the first game to go ahead as planned.
But it is such a fluid situation that contingency plans are being hatched to switch to Cape Town where rates are lower.
The world champions, who are all vaccinated, are due to play their first Test since the 2019 World Cup final on Friday against Georgia.
South Africa boss Rassie Erasmus maintains that the team followed every necessary precaution during its three-week conditioning camp in Bloemfontein – testing three times a week.
And he insisted: ”There is no threat to either the Tests against Georgia or the Lions tour.
"It is disruptive but it has happened to other rugby teams over the last months and we have enough players in our camp to go ahead with our matches.”
Two of the conclusions to be drawn from Murray’s shock appointment are that Owen Farrell faces a fight to make the Test team and that Maro Itoje does not yet have the leadership skills to take charge of such a major tour.
Ireland scrum-half Murray admitted he had not thought for one moment he was in contention to take over the armband.
“Warren asked me just before the cap ceremony and it was surreal. I still don't have my head around it,” he said.
He has not captained a team before at any level and described this “unbelievable” honour as “something that I never thought would be possible”.
Gatland moved fast after receiving confirmation that the dislocated shoulder suffered by Jones early in the 28-10 win over Japan had ended his tour before it had properly begun.
The Lions rushed out the news late Saturday night, dispelling any notion that Farrell, Itoje and Wales hooker Ken Owens, who took over from Jones at Murrayfield, were next in line.
“Interesting the chat about the leadership group and Owen Farrell getting most player votes,” tweeted Lions legend Brian O’Driscoll in reference to Gatland’s revelation last week about the England captain’s popularity amongst his peers.
“However maybe Gats doesn’t see him as his starting Test 12. Bundee [Aki] was good yesterday too.”
With Dan Biggar man of the match at fly-half and Aki, as O’Driscoll said, catching the eye at inside-centre, the risk of naming Farrell captain when Gatland can’t guarantee him a Test starting spot is obvious.
Itoje might also take it as a vote of no confidence in his leadership abilities, despite two-time skipper Sam Warburton having backed his candidacy before Jones’ appointment.
For now there are more pressing concerns for the tour as a whole with confirmation of positive tests in the Springboks camp and the whole squad placed into self-isolation.
But the Lions will try to focus on the positives from Saturday’s opening win when they set foot in locked down South Africa today.
Shrug off the disappointment of losing their totem, Jones, and flanker Justin Tipuric to injury, which left them calling Adam Beard and Josh Navidi off the standby list.
Take energy from the strength of Biggar’s playmaking, the impact of Aki on the gain line, sharp finishing by Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe and the lines cut by Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Beirne for their tries.
After the game Jones set aside his own devastation to congratulate his successor and tell him: “Just be yourself”.
Murray agreed: “That's really important. Growing up you probably thought you had to try and be a certain type of person to be a leader, but you just have to be yourself.
“Once you have the respect of the group around you and you do what you do, and you do it honestly, I think it should be fine.”
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