The potentially drastic decision to move the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa to an alternative country could have far-reaching implications for South Africa as a nation and for the financial well-being of rugby in the country, believes former Springbok skipper Jean de Villiers.
While he was keen to see the Lions in South Africa, however, De Villiers said he wasn’t wholly against the Boks going north for the tour – but only if there were no other options or possibilities, and provided SA Rugby benefitted financially from such a decision.
The eight-match, three-Test Lions tour, which was scheduled to kick off in South Africa in July, had come under threat in recent days because of the second wave of Covid.
“The first issue one must look at is the health and well-being of everyone who’d be involved,” said De Villiers, who played 109 Tests and succeeded John Smit as Bok skipper in 2012.
De Villiers featured in the last Lions tour to South Africa in 2009 – won 2-1 by the Boks following a nail-biting 28-25 victory in the second Test at Loftus.
“What makes a Lions tour so special is the fact that they come here with a massive touring party and plenty of spectators,” De Villiers said.
“The impact that has on the economy, the places they visit, and the country in general, is immense.”
De Villiers said that if the tour could not go ahead as planned – with fans in attendance – it may be best to postpone it by a year.
“A Lions tour is such a big occasion. It happens only every 12 years and to move it to another country just wouldn’t be the same,” said De Villiers.
“However, considering the financial position SA Rugby are possibly in and not knowing what the future holds, if taking the Boks to Europe to play against the Lions there is the last option, then it’s something that may have to be considered.
“It’s a tough decision to have to make. We all want the Lions here, along with their fans, but at the end of the day a financial decision also has to be made about what is best for SA Rugby and the players.”
There had been talk in the European press in recent days that the Boks should consider playing in Britain or Ireland.
It had also been suggested the Lions head to Australia because they had Covid “under control” and spectators were allowed into their sports grounds.
De Villiers believed South Africa and its people could do with a Lions tour to cheer up the nation.
“Everyone across the world is under pressure financially. A Lions tour would boost the country immeasurably and it is something SA Rugby could really do with right now.”