JAMIE ROBERTS: Tour chaos can unite Lions but preparation is a worry

JAMIE ROBERTS: Tour chaos can unite the Lions, but I worry for both sides’ preparations for the Test series now even if it is played

  • The question around the Lions tour now is where the Covid cases tipping point is 
  • Everyone wants the Test series to be played but it could become unsustainable
  • We could reach a point in the future where the majority of squads have Covid 
  • The fear is that we could be there soon and the virus cares little for Lions glory 

The biggest question around the Lions tour now is where the tipping point will come with Covid cases.

Everyone is desperate for the Test series to be played and the acute health risk to the players – who are vaccinated – is probably minimal, but when does this venture become unsustainable?

We could reach a point where the majority of the squads have Covid, because it is spreading like wildfire. We are not there yet, but the greatest fear is that we could be soon.

The biggest question around the Lions tour is where the tipping point will come with cases

Unfortunately the virus cares not for the glory of a Lions tour.

From a medical perspective, the problem with Covid is that it travels largely by asymptomatic transmission.

You may well find out the true number of positives two, three or four days down the line because Covid has an asymptomatic incubation period.

That has probably happened with these South African cases. A couple of lads have tested positive, you pray it hasn’t transmitted to anyone else — but if the virus is in, it spreads.

The Lions will face Cell C Sharks for a second time on Saturday with the tour thrown into chaos

Now they have 12 positives but let’s not be naive enough to think that number is not going to jump in the next round of testing.

As much as you isolate close contacts, this virus is so transmissible.

Going to South Africa, the Lions medics will have known that it was likely to be a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ they had Covid in camp, especially going into the heartland of the third wave in Gauteng.

They can only make decisions on matches based on the evidence of the tests.

But the way the virus works you can test negative, have it rumbling in the background and a few days later you’ve tested positive, so by that time you’ve spread it to more people. That is the danger.

Both sides’ preparation for the Test series may now take a hit even if the tour does carry on

You just hope the positive among the Lions management hasn’t spread further, but it could well be very difficult to contain now.

They will adapt their protocols, but it is a problem on a tour like this because the players are around each other all day.

They have a strict testing regime, bubbles and protocols but once it is in, it is in. The health of the players and older staff members in particular is the priority.

It is now a case of making the best out of a bad situation. With my rugby hat back on, I worry for both sides’ preparations for the Test series now even if it is played. 

The Lions squad looks to me to be the best assembled in recent history, with a plethora of world-class players who could tackle the Boks on Saturday.

The Lions squad is one of the best assembled in recent history and has many world-class stars

As South Africa have played one game in 20 months and are unlikely to play much, if at all, before the Tests, the tourists are in pole position to win the series 3-0 if it goes ahead.

I just can’t see how the Boks can have that quality of preparation to compete without playing matches and with so many cases in camp disrupting things.

They have not played properly since the World Cup final of November 2019 and have had one warm-up against Georgia. 

Yes, many of their players perform in some of the world’s best leagues but I don’t expect the Boks to be cohesive enough to beat the Lions. That will frustrate the Lions and their fans – they want to face a well-prepared, world-class Boks side. That’s what a Lions series should be.

Two years ago, South Africa were the best side in the world but a month is a long time in rugby, let alone 20 when you have hardly played. At least this school of thought will galvanise the home team. 

South Africa have had one warm-up against Georgia and haven’t played properly since 2019

The fact they haven’t played more than once together as a group could well be the very motivation they need. I feel for the players in all this. This is meant to be the greatest experience of their careers and it’s all a bit chaotic.

Think of the boys who were expecting to play for the Lions against the Sharks on Wednesday, then were tapped on the shoulder and told they were a close contact of a Covid positive case.

That is where the argument comes in around whether they could have postponed the tour a year, not just for the players but for fans and finances, too.

The players would have had lots of chats about how much of a shame this all is, but they no doubt want to make the very best of a bad situation.

People like Paul Stridgeon (pictured) will be crucial to keeping the Lions’ energy levels high

The minute you start moaning, it will all fall down like a ton of bricks. We’ve seen an immense buy-in from the playing group, and staff who are adapting brilliantly so far to everything that’s been thrown their way.

This is where individuals like Paul ‘Bobby’ Stridgeon, the fitness guru, and strength and conditioning coach Huw Bennett will be key. Their energy and enthusiasm will keep everyone going.

The Lions look like a group who are embracing all this. You saw that in the Sharks performance. That backs-to-the-walls, siege mentality will galvanise them.

On the pitch, the tour could not have got off to a better start. The Lions look like they’re playing whatever’s in front of them without too much structure and are enjoying themselves.

Owen Farrell had a good game against the Sharks playing off the cuff, Josh Navidi did well and the wingers can’t stop scoring. Josh Adams has eight tries in three games, which is the best try-scoring start to a Lions series for 85 years!

Importantly, their defence also looks strong. Yes, they are racking up tries, but they are holding teams out, too.

But as much as these tour results have been great – scoring 110 points and conceding only three tries in two games – they will know full well the big challenges are to come in the Tests.

It’s been a fine start for the Lions on the pitch and they look like they are enjoying themselves

If they play my old side the Stormers on Saturday week I fully expect it to be similar to the Sharks and Gauteng Lions results, a 40 or 50-point win.

There is an obvious gulf in class – so how do you mitigate against that?

It happened to us in 2009 in South Africa. We won all the tour games but were undercooked for that first Test in Durban – certainly up front.

What we faced when playing the Boks was chalk and cheese when compared to the warm-up games.

Warren Gatland’s side are playing some good stuff but their training also needs to be spot-on

Warren Gatland was forwards coach back then but won’t fall into that trap again and will prepare for it.

The Lions are playing some good stuff – playing to space and offloading.

Their support lines are smart, their tempo is high, ruck speed is good and attacking kicking is coming on. But their training needs to be spot-on if they are to be ready for the Tests.

It’s a hard balance as you don’t want injuries in training – Stephen Ferris was crocked a week before the first Test in 2009 – but those are risks they will have to take to get battle-hardened for the Boks.

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