Chaos and uncertainty reign as Lions land in South Africa

Chaos and uncertainty reign as Lions land in South Africa
After Alun Wyn Jones was ruled out with injury, a third wave in Gauteng threatens the tour

This British and Irish Lions tour has seldom appeared to be on totally stable footing but as Warren Gatland and his squad land in South Africa they could scarcely have endured a more disruptive weekend. It began with dreams fulfilled as the Lions played on Scottish soil for a first time but quickly became a nightmare, a leader lost, cases in the opposition camp and a surging coronavirus third wave in the province for which the Lions’ flight on Sunday evening departed.

Gauteng, the densely-populated province of Johannesburg and Pretoria in which five Lions tour games are scheduled, has been described as the epicentre as the Delta variant predominates. Local reports describe overwhelmed hospitals and shortages of beds and oxygen, while on Sunday night Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, announced new Level Four lockdown measures, banning all gatherings, prohibiting the sale of alcohol and imposing an overnight curfew.

The three players who have tested positive are the first cases for the Springboks but inevitable as an increasingly worrying third wave surges in South Africa. Sunday’s training was postponed with the entire squad isolating. Warm-up games scheduled against Georgia on the next two Fridays would appear to be in particular doubt.

At what point does the tour’s procession thus become untenable? There is time yet until the three-match series begins but it would be a surprise if the warm-up itinerary proceeds as planned at the very least, with rumours of a move entirely to Cape Town to avoid the Gauteng surge. Moreover, while strict bubbles may keep the virus out, the optics of the tour continuing along while South Africa and its people suffer are troubling.

The Lions departed for Johannesburg on Sunday evening with three games in the next two weeks in Gauteng. Their hotel base near Sandton is away from central Johannesburg and Ellis Park, where they meet their namesake South African side on Saturday.

The British and Irish Lions land on the Highveld with a new leader. The grimace of grim resignation on the face Alun Wyn Jones told the story, a wounded soldier with a dislocated shoulder lifting the 1888 Cup earned in victory over Japan in one hand. Jones will be joined on the recovery table by Justin Tipuric, the flanker befalling similar fate, two dislocated shoulders and two replacement tourists required within 25 minutes of the opening summer kick-off.

The revelation that Conor Murray had been appointed as a surprise leader in Jones’ stead came later on Saturday evening after Warren Gatland had confirmed the worst after the game.

“The timing of these injuries seems particularly cruel, but unfortunately they’re part of the game,” said Gatland. “Alun Wyn will obviously be a big loss, both on and off the field, but will be ably replaced by Conor.

“Conor is an outstanding rugby player and is held in the highest regard with both the players and coaches. As a three-time Lions tourist, he knows what will be required as captain and I am certain he will lead the squad with excellence.”

As the Danes partied in Amsterdam, and Geraint Thomas’s teammates tumbled at Le Tour, it was evidently not a day to be a Welsh sportsman. Injuries may be part and parcel of the process but to lose two key, experienced men before the tour had properly begun, including the chosen leader, was a bitter blow.

Murray’s appointment is intriguing, for the scrum-half is not a man with an established record of on-field leadership. The third-time tourist’s experience has counted in his favour, as has his status as one of, at this stage, very few players perhaps pencilled in to the Test side.

Gatland showed four years ago that he is not averse to starting his chosen captain on the bench but the circumstances with Sam Warburton in New Zealand were rather different, recovering as he was from injury. Murray’s elevation may thus be an indicator that others tipped to replace Jones as tour captain are not as secure of their places.

The Lions squad finally gathered in its totality on Sunday as four Exeter players joined them for the flight south after defeat in a spectacular Premiership final at Twickenham against Harlequins on Saturday. Also making the romcom rush to Edinburgh Airport were Adam Beard and Josh Navidi, having hastily been asked to retrieve their passports and replace their stricken Welsh teammates.

The Lions were not short of back-row options both within the squad and outside of it, but the explosive, relentless Navidi’s utility across the loose forwards gives Gatland a very useful option, with Hamish Watson and Tom Curry more than adequate specialist openside cover.

Beard’s call-up may partly be due to an untimely injury to Ireland’s James Ryan, but the Welshman has plenty of fine qualities, and his set-piece skill and maul defence would appear of particular value. He also possesses a familiarity with Gatland and assistant coaches Robin McBryde (from Wales) and Steve Tandy (from the Ospreys), which may be valuable with time tight to coalesce. The pair could well be in the Test mix, should the tour arrive at that point.

The injuries to Jones and Tipuric took the shine off an otherwise promising victory against an over-adventurous, rusty Japan. Dan Biggar’s composed showing at Murrayfield would suggest he remains favourite to partner Murray, while Tadhg Beirne also advanced his case on the blindside particularly. For a side of new colleagues on a first team building weekend, the Lions’ cohesion and calm in attack was an encouraging on-field sign, but another weekend of chaos leaves this Lions tour of crises plunged back into doubt, and yet more tough off-field questions to be answered.