Lions, Georgia fly into Covid cauldron to face Springboks

·3-min read

The Conor Murray-captained British and Irish Lions as well as Georgia arrive this week in Johannesburg, a city swamped by a Covid-19 third wave, to prepare for Tests against world champions South Africa.

On Sunday, three of the Springbok squad tested positive for coronavirus, forcing the cancellation of a training session in the economic hub.

This setback occurred despite the national squad being based in a bio-bubble with mandatory testing for the disease three times a week.

South Africa is the country on the continent hardest hit by the pandemic with 1,913,861 cases and 59,778 deaths through June 26.

The Lions and The Lelos will also stay in bubbles, before tackling Springboks desperate for international competition having being prevented from playing a Test match since November 2019 by the pandemic.

Georgia play South Africa in Pretoria on July 2 and in Johannesburg a week later in matches the hosts will use to prepare for a three-game series against the Lions.

Cape Town will stage the first Lions Test on July 24 and Johannesburg the following two on July 31 and August 7.

Before the series, a Lions team that lost skipper Alun Wyn Jones to a shoulder injury in a win over Japan on Saturday, will meet franchises the Lions, Bulls, Sharks and Stormers as well as South Africa A.

The tour opener at Ellis Park on Saturday will be a 'cat fight' with the Johannesburg-based Lions facing the visiting Lions a couple of weeks after conceding 39 points to second-tier Currie Cup opponents.

But as South Africans look forward to Test rugby in the republic for the first time since July 2019, a health crisis has engulfed the central Gauteng province.

The region includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, cities bearing the brunt of a third wave that has escalated rapidly and been described as "brutal" by overworked medical staff.

"Gauteng is burning," was how premier David Makhura summarised the situation in the heavily populated province.

- 'Never been so frightened' -

Recently introduced restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus have largely failed and President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to announce stiffer measures in a broadcast later on Sunday.

Ahead of the arrival of the Lions and Georgians, a senior doctor speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP that "in my 30-year medical career I have never been so frightened.

"Reports of hospitals with no spare beds, of ambulances parked for hours with patients inside, of up to four people sharing oxygen meant for one are true.

"Last week, a colleague drove her Covid-affected father nearly 500 kilometres (310 miles) from Johannesburg to secure a high-care bed," he said.

The Lions tour, the first to South Africa since 2009, was originally set to be the greatest sporting occasion in the republic since the country hosted the 2010 World Cup.

South Africa Rugby president Mark Alexander had predicted a 6.5 billion rand ($460 million/385 million euros) boost for an economy struggling even before the pandemic struck.

The hospitality industry -- one of the most severely affected sectors -- was preparing to host up to 30,000 travelling Lions supporters.

But endless attempts by rugby officials to persuade the government to permit at least 10,000 spectators at the Tests have failed, and the Covid surge makes it unlikely there will be a last-minute change of heart.

Tickets for the Tests were oversubscribed three times when they went on sale last year with prices ranging from 500 to 3,000 rand.

South Africa have won eight, drawn one and lost four of the series against the Lions since the first in 1891.

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