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The itinerary announced last week for the Lions tour to South Africa in 2021 was to many a notice of execution. Five weeks, eight matches, just two midweek outings and no games in between the three Tests. And the Gallagher Premiership final will be played one week before the opener in Cape Town against the Stormers.
When Warren Gatland returned from the 2017 trip to New Zealand, he said he would not be tempted by another tour, worn out by media ridicule in his home country and anticipating the cut in the length of future itineraries that would make planning even more difficult and threaten a core principle of the tourists: that every player will have the chance to compete for a place in the Test side.
He changed his mind and becomes only the second coach after Ian McGeechan to lead the Lions against each of the major southern hemisphere nations. It promises to be his most demanding assignment with South Africa rejuvenated under Rassie Erasmus: he may be standing down as head coach after the World Cup success, but his hand will remain on the Springboks’ tiller.
Premiership Rugby has been identified as the main threat to the continuation of the Lions after 2021. On the surface it has a case to answer for refusing to bring forward the date of its final in 2020-21, which will be played on June 26th, days after the start of the campaign. The Pro14, which is run by the unions, rather than the teams, has shortened its season by a week.
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