Second Sharks game only certainty Lions have on SA tour

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PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — More changes are anticipated to the British and Irish Lions’ tour schedule in South Africa, where the coronavirus is wreaking havoc.

Already, the scheduled match against the Bulls on Saturday in Pretoria has been postponed and replaced with a second match against the Sharks in four days.

The Lions then move on Sunday to Cape Town where they're scheduled next week to play South Africa A and the Stormers. But nobody's certain.

“We're not 100% sure who the opposition is going to be next week,” Lions coach Warren Gatland said on Friday. "It's a little bit difficult to plan ahead.”

The tourists are to stay in Cape Town for the first test against the Springboks in two weeks then return to Johannesburg for the second and third tests. But Johannesburg is a virus hotspot, and Gatland believed the teams may stay in Cape Town and play all three tests there.

“I'm pretty sure they will be played in Cape Town. That hasn't been 100% confirmed,” Gatland said. "That is my understanding at the moment.”

The isolating Springboks were forced to cancel their scheduled second test on Friday against Georgia, which also had people testing positive. That forced the Georgians also to cancel their home test next week against Scotland, another team infected. Despite no bio-secure bubble being safe from the virus, Gatland remained bullish about the tour continuing while doubts are increasing in the home unions.

"It's obviously been a slightly turbulent week but we remain determined to keep rolling with the punches,” Gatland said. "In many ways, the challenges we've faced this week have strengthened our resolve to do everything we can to overcome the challenges created by COVID.”

The Lions showed that on Wednesday after two positive tests -- by an unnamed player and staff member -- forced them to drop eight of the team to play the Sharks. The player has subsequently been cleared after returning two negative tests. But a makeshift side was isolated all day Wednesday until results of new tests cleared them to play an hour before kickoff. They beat the Sharks 54-7 at Ellis Park.

When Bulls players and backroom staff tested positive and they couldn't field a team, the Sharks returned negative tests and agreed to stand in and give the Lions another game on Saturday, this time at Loftus Versfeld. But they asked in the unusual circumstances to pick 11 reserves and received permission.

The Lions were given the option of 11 reserves but Gatland declined.

"We feel we've got enough cover,” he said.

Gatland restored seven of the eight he originally dropped -- excepting a fit Stuart Hogg. The Lions made 13 changes to the starting team, retaining only Duhan van der Merwe at left wing and Elliot Daly at center.

Hooker Jamie George will captain the Lions for the first time. Gatland said George earned his respect on the 2017 tour of New Zealand and the captaincy was reward for his service.

He was also grateful for the Sharks for stepping up, and believed a second match with them was worth it.

“Keeps the players ticking over,” he said. “There's still lots of things for us to work on. We're not the finished article.”

The Sharks also turned over their starting XV, keeping only No. 8 and captain Phepsi Buthelezi in the forward pack, and three backs from the game on Wednesday.

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Lineups:

Sharks: Anthony Volmink, Marnus Potgieter, Werner Kok, Murray Koster, Thaakir Abrahams, Lionel Cronje, Jaden Hendrikse; Phepsi Buthelezi (captain), Mpilo Gumede, Dylan Richardson, Reniel Hugo, Le Roux Roets, Wiehahn Herbst, Kerron van Vurren, Nthuthuko Mchunu. Reserves: Dan Joost, MJ Majola, Khutha Mchunu, Thembelani Bholi, Jeandre Labuschagne, Cameron Wright, Boeta Chamberlain, Jeremy Ward, Lourens Adriaanse, Rynhardt Jonker, Curwin Bosch.

British and Irish Lions: Liam Williams, Antony Watson, Elliot Daly, Chris Harris, Duhan van der Merwe, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Jack Conan, Hamish Watson, Tadhg Beirne, Jonny Hill, Maro Itoje, Tadhg Furlong, Jamie George (captain), Rory Sutherland. Reserves: Ken Owens, Wyn Jones, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, Sam Simmonds, Tom Curry, Conor Murray, Finn Russell.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

The Associated Press

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