Rugby: 2021 British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa under threat

The 2021 British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa could be cancelled, as the four 'Home Unions' brace for a cash crisis.

The Warren Gatland-coached side are due to play the Rugby World Cup champions in three tests next year, as part of an eight-match tour that would net more than NZ$60 million.

But England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales each face a potential NZ$160 million blackhole, with four matches still unplayed in the current Six Nations campaign, while visits from the southern hemisphere sides are also in serious doubt, including the All Blacks tour of England, Scotland and Wales.

According to reports, all four boards may prioritise their home tests after the pandemic, which could mean cancellation of the Lions' traditional four-yearly tour.

The tour is unlikely to be postponed, rather than cancelled, given Gatland has a specific one-year sabbatical written into his current Super Rugby contract with the Chiefs.

With much of the expected NZ$60million to be snapped up by South African rugby, the financial incentive for the home unions to reschedule their 2020 programme and earn up to NZ$16 million a game could prove too enticing in a potentially desperate situation. 

Former Lions captain Phil Bennett told The Mirror the cancellation of the Lions tour would be a big blow for the traditions of rugby in the north. 

"Playing for the Lions is the pinnacle for any rugby player and it would be heartbreaking if the current players didn’t get that opportunity next year," says 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.

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

"If the unions go bankrupt, then the grassroots 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 the survival of the game itself."

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