THE total number of players and staff in the Springbok squad to have returned a positive Covid test result has now reached 26 with news yesterday that six more players – including inspirational captain Siya Kolisi – and three members of the management team were diagnosed with the virus last week.

Flanker Dan du Preez, prop Ox Nché, hookers Bongi Mbonambi and Scarra Ntubeni, and wing Makazole Mapimpi also tested positive during the daily testing which has taken place since the whole squad began isolating last Monday. 

Despite this, both the South Africa and the Lions remain committed to kicking off their three Test series in 12 days’ time on Saturday 24th July, and those members of the Springbok squad who have not tested positive to Covid resumed training, with Cell C Sharks hooker Fez Mbatha and Vodacom Bulls prop Lizo Gqoboka drafted into the group as emergency cover. 

The squad will train under SARU’s Director of Rugby Rassie as Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber continues his self-isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 last Monday.   

“We are delighted to be able to return to the field and resume our preparations for the Castle Lager Lions Series,” said Nienaber.

“It has been a challenging week with the Test against Georgia cancelled and the entire squad self-isolating for a few days as a preventative measure, so the players cannot wait to get back on the park. 

“The Test against Georgia was important for us with an eye on preparing to face the British & Irish Lions, but these are extraordinary times and we have to adapt as a team, and I have to commend the players and management for that. 

“We are a tight-knit coaching team and everyone takes responsibility in their respective roles. 

“It is also great to have Rassie (Erasmus) steering the ship while I am away. He has been part of the system for several years now and he guided most of these players to the Rugby World Cup title in 2019, so the team is in great hands.” 

The South Africa ‘A’ team is scheduled to face the British & Irish Lions in Cape Town on Wednesday [14th July], although Lions head coach Warren Gatland indicated after Saturday night’s 71-31 victory over the Cell C Sharks that this game may be pushed back to next Saturday, with Saturday’s game against the Stormers being brought forward to Wednesday instead. 

The Lions also had to deal with a Covid outbreak last week, and Gatland revealed on Saturday night that one player and four members of staff would not fly to Cape Town with the rest of the squad on Sunday as a consequence. 

Whoever the opposition is on Wednesday, the match is likely to represent that last opportunity for some of the Scots on the fringes of the Test team to stake a claim for selection.  

The team will be announced on Monday morning and it will be interesting to see if Stuart Hogg is involved. The full-back was supposed to be on the bench against the Sharks last Wednesday but was withdrawn from that squad and did not feature on Saturday.

It is not clear if this was related to the dead-leg he was struggling with or Covid-related. The 29-year-old will be desperate for a run-out after his main rival for the No15 jersey, Liam Williams, registered another big performance against the Sharks on Saturday evening. 

 Meanwhile, scrum-half Ali Price is also likely to feature. He has been in decent form but is up against tour captain Conor Murray so is probably looking at a place on the bench, and tight-head prop Zander Fagerson could also do with a big performance as he looks to get himself ahead of Englishman Kyle Sinckler as Tadhg Furlong’s understudy. 

 All four of the Scots who were involved in the Sharks match on Saturday evening are likely to be rested midweek – but they will each feel that they enhanced their Test match chances on Saturday. 

 Gatland described winger Duhan van der Merwe’s performance as ‘excellent’ after he scored his fifth try of the tour and beat more defenders with ball in hand than any other player on the park, Chris Harris took his try well and was generally solid whilst playing out of position at inside centre, flanker Hamish Watson was once again a stand-out in the Lions pack, and loose-head prop Rory Sutherland also impressed with some solid scrummaging and a couple of aggressive carries. 

All seven of those players are in contention to play in the Tests – but stand-off Finn Russell is a major doubt. The playmaker has a torn Achilles and Gatland has warned that he will have to be sent home if the injury does not improve during the next week. England’s Marcus Smith was flown out to South Africa as a precaution last night. 

 "We’re going to try to see if we can rehab him and he’s going to be in a boot for the next five days, and then when he comes out of that he’ll have some more treatment,” said Gatland on Saturday night. 

 “If he makes good progress then we’ll assess him going forward, and if he’s not then there’s a possibility that he may go home, so we’re just in a wait and see situation with him.”