British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland says he is surprised by world champions South Africa’s decision to withdraw from the Rugby Championship.
Gatland will lead the Lions for a third time on their tour of South Africa and said the Springboks risked being “underdone” for the series in 2021.
A condensed tour starting on 3 July will see the Lions play three Tests against the Springboks as part of an eight-match schedule.
South Africa withdrew from the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship earlier this month due to what SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux described as a coronavirus-induced “perfect storm.”
Gatland, though, says he will be perhaps going in blind to the series without having seen the ‘Boks play.
“It could end up being 20 months between their last game and the first (Lions) Test,” the 57-year-old former Wales coach told the BBC.
“So they may be underdone, and it will be disappointing from my perspective because I won’t get a chance maybe to see them play.”
The New Zealander — who led the Lions to success over Australia in 2013 and then tied a series with then world champions New Zealand in 2017 — sympathised with South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
“Those are the kind of the times we are in at the moment,” Gatland said.
“I can understand from Rassie’s point of view, they hadn’t had a lot of domestic rugby, so they felt they were going down to Australia being undercooked and understandably not wanting to expose themselves.
“They talked about an injury risk, I am not too sure that was the case, but that’s their prerogative and they felt they needed more rugby.
“But what they are going to do — internally or externally — ahead of the Lions, I am not too sure, so it is a bit of a wait and see.”
The Lions will prepare for their tour with a one-off Test against 2019 World Cup hosts Japan in Edinburgh on June 26.
That falls on the same day as the English Premiership final which rules out players from the finalists from taking part.
However, even English players selected in the Lions party, and not involved in the final, will reportedly be forbidden from joining up for the Japan Test as it is outside the Test window.
“The Brexit negotiations are still going on, and it’s the same thing with us,” Gatland told BBC Sport.
“We hope that we can come to some agreement with Premiership Rugby in terms of the release of those players.”
Gatland says it could affect selection in the starting line-up come the tour proper.
“I can promise we will be taking the best possible squad,” said Gatland.
“But if you end up with a 50-50 call, and you are not quite sure of one player over another player, and one player is available to you for two weeks of preparation and another one isn’t, that may be the difference between someone getting selected and someone not getting selected.”
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