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Rugby Australia has made a “game-changing” intervention over the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa by offering to underwrite the cost of taking Test matches to Sydney, Perth and Brisbane.
It is understood that Rugby Australia’s offer of a minimum guarantee, which has government backing, would ensure a profitable return for both the Lions and South Africa – even if a match had to be played behind closed doors because of a short-notice lockdown.
Rugby Australia has upped the ante in its offer to bring the British and Irish Lions down under for a second time in eight years.Credit:Getty
The offer would effectively remove the financial risk of relocating the tour to Australia, which has been seen as the main stumbling block to the plan for three Tests to be played in front of capacity crowds at major stadiums.
“This is a potential game-changer,” said one source. “There is so much to like about the Australia option and it would be very popular with the players because it would feel like a proper tour. The sticking point was making the numbers work. With a minimum guarantee from Rugby Australia, that risk would effectively be removed.”
It is understood that Rugby Australia’s commercial team made a presentation to Lions officials on Tuesday to outline the plan and addressed key financial issues, including any impact that switching would have on key sponsors.
Rugby Australia is confident that staging the tour would be a huge commercial success for both South Africa and the Lions and give the players the closest experience to a traditional tour.
Rugby Australia boss Hamish McLennan.Credit:Edwina Pickles
If the tour were to be staged in South Africa, it would almost certainly be behind closed doors.
The Lions have asked Britain’s Department of Culture Media and Sport to underwrite the series should it be switched to the United Kingdom. That option, which received a boost on Monday when the lockdown roadmap suggested crowds might be allowed to attend major sporting events by July, would not be viable without the costs being underwritten because of the continuing uncertainty about the situation.
However, with no guarantee of financial support, the fact that Rugby Australia moved first with a firm offer could prove decisive, with the Lions board expected to make a final decision in the next 10 days.
Hamish McLennan, the chairman of Rugby Australia, said his team were ready if given the green light by the Lions board.
“The next thing we will endeavour to do is to give South Africa and the Lions a minimum guarantee to cover the costs of the tour and return a profit and we are confident that we can help with replacement sponsors if key partners don’t wish to support the Lions in Australia,” he said.
“We will continue the ethos of a Lions tour played in the southern hemisphere. If we are told ‘yes’, we will do everything to make it an enthralling and memorable tour. There are hundreds of thousands of Lions fans living here and while it won’t be exactly the same as a traditional Lions tour, it will be close”.
Australia has hosted several major international sporting events in the past year, including rugby’s Tri Nations, and is experienced in providing sporting solutions to quarantine issues.
Rugby Australia predicts the tour would attract sell-out crowds because of the large ex-pat communities from both South Africa and the UK living in Australia. McLennan also insisted there was minimal risk that COVID-19 would impact games.
“There was a cluster of around 70 people who caught COVID in Manly and the government still allowed a crowd of around 25,000 to the Sydney Cricket Ground for the Test match between Australia and India in January,” McLennan added.
“The outbreak was probably seven kilometres, as the crow flies, from the quarantine area. It was the worst outbreak that Sydney has seen for months and months and yet they still kept the city functioning.
“We are now even better at managing these issues. The State of Origin played to a capacity crowd of over 50,000 in Brisbane.”
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