Cape Town Stadium will now host the entire Test series between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions after it was decided that playing games in Gauteng would present too great a risk from a COVID-19 perspective.

Following the first Test of the rugby union tour on Saturday, the two teams were due to travel back to Johannesburg for the second and third Tests at FNB Stadium on July 31 and August 7, respectively.

However, SA Rugby and the Lions have now confirmed an agreement has been reached to conclude the series in Cape Town. The two parties said the decision to remain in Cape Town was made following extensive consultation with medical experts on the risks associated with the Delta variant of COVID-19.

Gauteng has seen nearly 70% of all new cases in the country since the Lions arrived in South Africa on June 28, which has resulted in President Cyril Ramaphosa imposing stricter national restrictions. The Lions tour had kicked off with two warm-up matches at Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg, before moving to Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria for one game and Cape Town Stadium for a further two.

Following the decision announced yesterday (Tuesday), all three Test matches will now take place at Cape Town Stadium on successive Saturdays – July 24 and 31, and August 7. “The data pointed in only one direction,” said Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby.

“The series has already been significantly disrupted by COVID-19 and a return to Gauteng at this time would only increase the risks. We now have two teams in bio-secure environments without any positive cases or anyone in isolation. To now return to the Highveld would expose the series to renewed risk.

“Everyone wants to see the two squads, at their strongest, play out an unforgettable series over the next three weekends and this decision gives us the best opportunity to see that happen.”

Ben Calveley, managing director for the British & Irish Lions, added: “We are fully supportive of this decision which we believe to be in the best interest of the Test series.”

COVID-19 has meant SA Rugby and the Lions have had to revise plans for the tour on multiple occasions. In May, a revised schedule was confirmed with Emirates Airline Park losing its hosting rights to one Test and matches to be played behind closed doors.

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 hosted 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.

Speaking yesterday, Roux thanked Gauteng and the City of Cape Town in being able to accommodate the late change of plan. “We have had great support from local government, and I’d like to thank both Gauteng and the City of Cape Town for their open-minded engagement in what has been a very challenging time,” said Roux.

“Extraordinary times have called for extraordinary measures and we have had support from all our commercial partners despite the challenges.”

Image: Alberto Di Maria on Unsplash