British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa faces axe due to coronavirus crisis

Next year’s British and Irish Lions tour is in danger of being ditched as the home unions face up to rugby’s growing cash crisis.

The Lions – the only global brand in the sport that can dwarf the All Blacks – are due to tour South Africa next year on an eight-match trip that could earn £30m.

But England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland are all sweating over whether or not they can play their autumn Tests, plus the four matches already held over from this season’s Six Nations due to the coronavirus shutdown.

If those games don’t go ahead – or are played behind closed doors – then the home countries are in danger of falling into an £80m black hole.

Some officials are already discussing how that would bankrupt the Welsh, Scottish and Irish unions and force them, as well as England, to make re-scheduled home Tests in 2021 their top priority.

In a crowded calendar, it would mean the more lucrative home Tests elbowing aside the Lions tour, which would be postponed for a year, or even scrapped altogether.

A delayed tour could prove complicated – not just for the 35,000 Lions fans who had been expected to head to South Africa, but also for head coach Warren Gatland, who has a specific one-year sabbatical written into his current contract with the Chiefs in New Zealand.

The Lions’ three-Test series against the Springboks has already been hit by the re-scheduling of the Tokyo Olympics, which will now compete for exposure over three weekends starting on July 23, 2021.

Lions tours are the biggest money-spinners in the sport – but only for the hosting country, either South Africa, New Zealand or Australia.

They keep most of the cash from TV revenue and gate receipts – a convention that bailed out the cash-strapped All Blacks in 2017.

With much of the expected £30m gobbled up by the hosts and huge costs paid out for the use of 40-odd players, even after all the lucrative sponsorship cash has been added up, the individual countries only end up with a surplus of around £2m each.

That’s small beer compared to the £4m to £8m per game a home international can bring in.

With the governing bodies facing a battle for survival, some players across the four nations have already been placed on furlough, while others have suffered 25 per cent wage cuts.

The Lions have been touring since 1888 and former Lions captain Phil Bennett says it would be a massive blow if next year’s plans to face the world champions Springboks are shelved.

“Playing for the Lions is the pinnacle for any rugby player and it would be heart-breaking if the current players didn’t get that opportunity next year,” said Bennett.

“There would then be doubts about when the next tour would ever come around.

“I hope the people at the top of rugby can resolve the issues that are now looming because of the shutdown in the sport. But it’s no good the Lions tour going ahead if Wales, Scotland and Ireland are going to go bankrupt.

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“Those nations have to get money in through hosting international games in order to keep the game going in those countries.

“If the unions go bankrupt, then the grass roots doesn’t get looked after and rugby at that level could simply die. People in Wales are already talking about dozens of clubs disappearing because there is no income coming in.

“It would be a huge shame for the Lions to be shelved next year, not least because I think there would be around 30,000 fans out there. It would be special. But we are talking about survival of the game itself.”

Former England and Leicester full-back Tim Stimpson – part of the victorious Lions squad that beat the Springboks in 1997 – is another who fears the Lions face huge challenges in touring South Africa next year.

Stimpson, who was the Lions’ top points scorer on the 1997 trip, said: “Of all the jerseys I wore on a rugby field, the Lions was the one that meant the most to me.

“The first thing that will guide whether or not next year's tour goes ahead will be health. It will be the situation in that country regarding the virus and the effect of having thousands of fans travelling around South Africa.

“But the financial situation with regard to the countries here is also very worrying if they have not had the income from the scheduled Test matches.

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