South Africa’s Fifa World Cup stadiums very much continue to be considered white elephants, but at least SA Rugby is trying to utilise them to the hilt for the British and Irish Lions tour in 2021.
The federation on Wednesday announced an exciting, if very tight, schedule – 3 July to 7 August – for the men in red’s trip to Africa, the first since 2009, when the Springboks thrillingly won a brilliant series 2-1.
And for good measure, no fewer than four of the venues used for 2010’s footballing showpiece, will be back in action, including the more than 94,000-capacity FNB Stadium in Soweto, which will have a lower final capacity, at about 88,000, because of media and VIP attendance.
2021 British and Irish Lions schedule
Saturday 3 July: v Stormers – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Wednesday 7 July: v SA ‘Invitational’ – Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Saturday 10 July: v Sharks – Kings Park, Durban
Wednesday 14 July: v South Africa ‘A’ – Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
Saturday 17 July: v Bulls – Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Saturday 24 July (first Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
Saturday 31 July (second Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Saturday 7 August (third Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – Ellis Park, Johannesburg
SA Rugby have set the ambitious target of hosting the Lions Test with the highest attendance ever by granting the first of three Tests to the FNB Stadium.
Should the match be a sellout, it will eclipse the 84,188 who watched the Wallabies clinch the 2001 series in Sydney.
FNB Stadium has hosted three previous rugby Tests, with the Boks and All Blacks doing battle there in 2010 and 2012’s Rugby Championships, while the men in green and gold also galloped to a massive 73-7 win over Argentina in Soweto in 2013.
The battles then move to Cape Town Stadium (capacity 55,000) and Ellis Park (capacity 62,500) respectively.
While Lions tours always carry with them a sizeable group of travelling fans, a sluggish economy could prevent many South Africans from buying tickets.
However, local fans should bet on a strong Springbok squad being assembled for the series, with Rassie Erasmus, the national director of rugby, strongly suggesting that various big-name players – particularly a veteran like Duane Vermeulen – are prolonging their international careers or delaying permanent moves overseas to come into contention for selection.
“There are players who have been to three Rugby World Cups and finished their careers with a winner’s medal and yet never got to play against the Lions,” said Erasmus.
“They only come around every 12 years for our players and only a few of them ever have the privilege of wearing the Springbok jersey in a Lions series. The Lions have not lost a series since they were last here a decade ago and they will present a next-level challenge in 18 months’ time.”
Warren Gatland, the Lions’ coach, said he’s “absolutely thrilled” with the schedule.
“Touring South Africa is always a huge challenge, not only from a rugby perspective, but also in terms of the venues and the conditions facing the players. We are very comfortable that three of the games, two of which are Test matches, will be played at altitude.”