COVID variant shuts down S African sport

Nineteen golfers have withdrawn from the Joburg Open amid concerns over the new COVID variant.
Nineteen golfers have withdrawn from the Joburg Open amid concerns over the new COVID variant.

South African sport has begun to shut down after the detection of a new coronavirus variant in the country, with the imposition of travel bans forcing rugby teams and golfers to scramble to try and leave.

Rugby teams scheduled to play in South Africa at the weekend and golfers competing in a European Tour event in Johannesburg were under threat of harsh quarantine arrangements as Britain and countries in the European Union imposed travel bans.

"I'd three holes to finish in my first round, and when I came in I turned my phone on and I had messages from everyone asking me if I was going to go to the airport or stay and play," golfer Paul Dunne told Irish RTE radio.

"A few people are on the course without kind of a real idea of what's going on, but some people are finding it hard. I've heard people can't get a flight until Sunday evening."

Britain said on Friday the newly identified COVID-19 variant was of huge concern and was considered by scientists to be the most significant one yet found as it could make vaccines less effective.

Four rugby teams were due to play South African opposition in the United Rugby Championship (URC), but weekend matches have been postponed with Welsh clubs Cardiff and Scarlets looking to leave before travellers from southern Africa are forced to quarantine on their return to Britain.

"With the situation in South Africa having changed so quickly, we are now looking to repatriate our staff ASAP," Cardiff said on Twitter earlier on Friday.

Irish team Munster and Zebre, of Italy, were also due to play in South Africa.

They were the first clubs to arrive in South Africa since the onset of the pandemic and the postponement of fixtures will come as a major blow to the newly launched tournament involving sides from South Africa, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.

Golf's Joburg Open, the first European Tour event of the new season, was also hit by the withdrawals as play resumed on Friday. A total of 19 golfers from Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Germany either withdrew before play or retired during their Friday rounds.

On Friday, South Africa began the first of a three-match cricket ODI series against the Netherlands, but the second and third games could be called off.

Cricket South Africa said its Dutch counterpart would check with the players if they wanted to continue, as it was highly unlikely that the visiting team would be able to fly out of South Africa over the weekend.

South Africa are also set to host India next month, with that tour expected to be a major boon to Cricket South Africa's coffers.

Indian cricket's governing body, the BCCI, told Reuters it was monitoring the situation but would not yet make a decision.

Australian Associated Press