South Africa organizes extra game to prepare for Lions tests
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — South Africa organized an extra game for its squad to prepare for the British and Irish Lions test series, meaning there will be back-to-back matches at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday in yet another tweak to a tour that’s been regularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
A South Africa A lineup will play domestic team the Bulls before the British and Irish Lions face the Stormers in what’s also their last warmup before the first test a week later.
Springboks captain Siya Kolisi won’t play as he was one of a group of players forced to stay in Johannesburg and isolate after testing positive for the virus last weekend. At least a dozen South Africa players and coaching staff members have tested positive since the squad came together late last month.
Head coach Jacques Nienaber said Kolisi was beginning his return to play protocols after isolating, but the virus cases have been a major complication for the world champions with just over a week to the first test.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak in their squad, the Springboks were in dire need of match practice and have played just one test in two years since winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup. They beat minnow Georgia two weeks ago but a second game against Georgia was canceled.
Some players did get a game in South Africa A’s victory over the Lions in a scheduled tour match on Wednesday night but the coaching staff is clearly fretting over a lack of match fitness.
“We want to be as well prepared as possible when we meet the British and Irish Lions,” said South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, who had to take over coaching duties for the squad this week while head coach Nienaber also went through isolation protocols having tested positive.
Kolisi and the other players back in Johannesburg were “doing well from a health point of view,” Nienaber said, but trying to avoid “getting cabin fever in their rooms.” The Springboks had as many as 10 players in isolation in the past week, Nienaber said, while the whole squad was kept in their hotel rooms for long periods earlier in the tour.
British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland this week turned down an offer from Erasmus for South Africa A and the Lions to play each other for a second time this weekend in the first signs of friction between the camps. South Africa A won the first game 17-13.
“I don’t see it as our role to prepare them for the test series,” Gatland said. “I think he (Erasmus) was trying to wind us up saying we’re scared (to play South Africa A again).”
The Lions’ tour to South Africa, which comes around once every 12 years, has coincided with a winter wave of cases in South Africa. Before the tour began, all the games were moved to the cities of Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town to limit the Lions’ possible exposure to the virus while traveling.
The Lions also had one early tour match against the Bulls canceled, with different opposition stepping in, because of positive virus tests in the Bulls squad. Both the South Africa and the Lions squads have had players and coaching staff put in isolation, either for positive virus tests or because of possible exposure.
It’s also been suggested that the three-test series, which is scheduled for one test in Cape Town and two in Johannesburg, will be played entirely in Cape Town because of a surge in virus cases in the Johannesburg region. That hasn’t been confirmed.
“Due to the pandemic the situation is very fluid,” said SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux, one of the key organizers of the tour.
Flyhalf Elton Jantjies will captain South Africa A against the Bulls. Fellow World Cup winners Damian de Allende at center, Cobus Reinach at scrumhalf, Kwagga Smith at No. 8 and Vincent Koch at prop also start.
Wales lock and initial Lions squad captain Alun Wyn Jones is on the bench against the Stormers having made a remarkable return from a dislocated shoulder to join up with the Lions in South Africa this week.
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