Warren Gatland will take his British and Irish Lions squad to South Africa this summer for his third tour as head coach, although this one will have a unique feel to it.
The Springboks were only confirmed as the Lions’ opponents as recently as March, with the global pandemic reaping havoc on the sporting calendar. In these Covid-19 times, the tour will be completely different for the players and fans alike, with those wanting to watch their heroes in the flesh unable to do so this time around.
Let’s focus on the players first. Rugby union is one of the few remaining sports with a reputation for its stars enjoying the nightlife of places that their travels take them on. Not this year. For a tour lasting six weeks, Gatland and his team are going to have to find ways to prevent the 37-man squad from suffering with cabin fever.
37 boisterous men staying inside the same bubble for pushing two months is a recipe for disaster, and is just another factor that the coaching team are going to have to contend with.
Then there are the supporters. Lions fans travel in their thousands to take in the spectacle of a tour that visits all corners of the globe. Many see the tour as their own opportunity to experience a holiday like no other, with them having to wait another four years for the next chance to follow their union stars.
Unfortunately for those that would be looking to make the trip, the current rules state that the Cape Town opener will be played behind closed doors, and it is looking increasingly likely that the remaining two in Johannesburg will follow suit.
While that may be an advantage for the British and Irish troops who now don’t have to worry about playing in front of a menacing South African crowd, both sides are going to have to get used to performing without the added motivation of spectators roaring them on.
Gatland, who defeated Australia on his tour debut eight years ago before guiding his side to an unlikely series draw in his native New Zealand four years later, has had to contend with an awful lot in his coaching career, but this may just top the lot.
He’s already one of the most successful coaches that the Lions have had, but avoiding defeat against the reigning world champions would elevate him to iconic status. That is the view of former Lions captain Sam Warburton, who played under the New Zealander in both of his previous tours as head coach.
"Even now he is probably the most successful Lions head coach with two undefeated tours," Warburton claimed.
"To do three would see him cement himself as an icon of Lions rugby.
"He is already a Lions great but to have three unbeaten Test tours under his belt would be tough to beat and a record that would probably stand for a long time.”
In avoiding a series defeat in South Africa, this generation of British and Irish Lions would become the first to do so in three successive attempts – a feat that hasn’t been managed since 1899.
Before heading out to Johannesburg to take on the Emirates Lions on 3rd July, there is the small matter of a match against a Japan outfit who miraculously topped their 2019 World Cup group containing Ireland, Scotland and Samoa.
Once in South Africa, warmup games against the likes of Cell C Sharks, Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers should acclimatise captain Alun Wyn Jones and his men to the style and conditions, before the first of three tests against the world champions kicks off on July 24th in Cape Town.
Perhaps surprisingly, Betfred have the Lions as 8/11 favourites to win the series, with the hosts priced at 6/5. After the 2017 series with the All Blacks finished as a tie for the first time since 1955, the same outcome can be backed at an interesting 22/1.
There will be an awful lot of enforced changes surrounding the entire tour, but after the Springboks battered and bruised England in a 32-12 World Cup final victory, expect one thing to stay the same…
It will be brutal.