The British & Irish Lions and SA Rugby have today (Friday) confirmed a revised schedule for the former’s forthcoming tour of South Africa, with Emirates Airline Park losing its hosting rights to one Test and matches set to be played behind closed doors.

All eight matches of the tour will now be played in Gauteng or Cape Town to minimise the risks of disruption that could be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The series will now kick off in Gauteng, rather than Cape Town, with three matches against provincial opposition before moving to Cape Town for two more warm-up matches before the first Test at Cape Town Stadium on July 24.

The series then returns to Johannesburg for the second and third Tests at the FNB Stadium (pictured), on July 31 and August 7, respectively. In March, the Lions and SA Rugby confirmed that the tour would go ahead in South Africa.

There had been doubts over whether the tour would take place in South Africa amid the ongoing difficulties posed by COVID-19, with Rugby Australia having made a proposal to stage the series. There had also been talk that the series could be held in the UK and Ireland as a contingency plan if South Africa was not able to host.

The original schedule had outlined that Johannesburg’s ‘Soccer City’ FNB Stadium, which staged the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, would host the first Test on July 24, before Cape Town Stadium hosts the second Test on July 31. The Lions were set to return to Johannesburg for the third and final Test against the world champions at Emirates Airline Park, the site of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, on August 7.

The revamped schedule sees Emirates Airline Park lose its Test, with FNB Stadium to instead hold back-to-back matches. “The COVID-19 pandemic has caused considerable disruption to the global sporting calendar, but after discussions with our partners at SA Rugby, we are very pleased to be able to give confirmation of the revised tour schedule,” said Lions managing director Ben Calveley.

“While things will undoubtedly look different to a typical Lions tour, together with SA Rugby we are determined to deliver an uninterrupted series for the players who will take the field, as well as the many millions of people watching at home.”

SA Rugby is organising all games in the schedule on the basis they will take place behind closed doors. All ticket holders for the original schedule will receive a full refund. SA Rugby also confirmed that domestic ticket holders will have first right to purchase tickets for the revised schedule if restrictions on attendance at sports events are lifted.

Supporters who have booked ticket-inclusive packages through Lions Rugby Travel and its appointed official sub-agents have been contacted separately with the options available, as have those who had successfully purchased Test match tickets via the Lions ticket ballot. South Africa is currently categorised on the ‘red’ list for COVID-19 by the UK Government. This means that UK residents should not travel to red list countries or territories for leisure purposes.

SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux said: “It has been a challenging process with dozens of variables to consider but we believe we have arrived at a schedule that minimises the risks associated with the pandemic.

“We are hopeful that restrictions on attendance at sports events will be relaxed but, for the moment, we are planning for an event behind closed doors. If that requirement changes, then we’ll assess the options available and make the necessary decisions based on the restrictions in place.”

Roux added: “The scenarios changed on a weekly basis with options on three different continents workshopped and interrogated over the past few months to reach this point. Throughout we have had a single-minded goal to ensure the series went ahead.

“The British & Irish Lions only visit our shores once every 12 years and to deny our players and our supporters the opportunity of sharing in the experience of what is invariably an event that passes into folklore would have been a devastating blow. We’re now ready to deliver the series.”

The Lions also confirmed that the pre-series Test match against Japan at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium will go ahead as planned on June 26, with a decision on fan attendance to be made nearer the time in accordance with Scottish Government guidance. The game will mark only the third time the Lions have played a ‘home’ fixture.

Image: Stadium Management South Africa/CC BY-SA 4.0/Edited for size