Coronavirus hits sport: New COVID variant forces South Africa to shut down sport

South African sport is shutting down after the detection of a new coronavirus variant in the country, with the imposition of travel bans forcing rugby teams and golfers to scramble to try and leave.

Rugby teams scheduled to play in South Africa at the weekend and golfers competing in a European Tour event in Johannesburg are under threat of harsh quarantine arrangements as Britain and countries in the European Union imposed travel bans.

Britain health officials said on Friday the newly identified COVID-19 variant was of huge concern and considered by scientists to be the most significant one yet found as it could make vaccines less effective.

Four rugby teams were due to play South African opposition in the United Rugby Championship (URC), but weekend matches have been postponed with Welsh clubs Cardiff and Scarlets looking to leave before travellers from southern Africa are forced to quarantine on their return to Britain.

Munster of Ireland and Zebre of Italy were also due to play in South Africa.

They were the first clubs to arrive in South Africa since the onset of the pandemic and the postponement of fixtures will come as a major blow to the newly launched tournament involving sides from South Africa, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.

Golf's Joburg Open, the first European Tour event of the new season, has also been hit by the withdrawals. A total of 19 golfers from Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Germany either withdrew before play or retired during their second round.

On Friday night (NZ time), South Africa began the first of a three-match One Day International cricket series against the Netherlands, but the second and third games are likely to be called off.

South Africa are also set to host India in a full test and limited overs tour next month, with that tour expected to be a major boost to Cricket South Africa's coffers.

Indian cricket's governing body, the BCCI, tells Reuters it's monitoring the situation but has yet to make a decision.