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Warren Gatland has pledged to continue fighting for the future of the British & Irish Lions as he seeks to become the first head coach in the touring side’s history to complete a clean sweep of unbeaten series against all three Southern Hemisphere opposition.

Gatland leads the Lions into the first Test against the Springboks on Saturday in the most challenging tour of his tenure given the Covid-19 backdrop, with outbreaks in both camps since the squad arrived in South Africa. Even before the pandemic, the tour had been trimmed down to eight matches in five weeks and the Lions secured the early release of England-based players for their training camp in Jersey only at the 11th hour.

Earlier in the year the Lions were also forced to consider contingency plans, including relocating to Australia, or hosting a “home tour” in the UK and Ireland, but eventually a decision was made to press on in South Africa behind closed doors. Since arriving, given the one-sided nature of the warm-up matches against the South African franchises, there have been calls to revamp future tours, and while World Rugby has recently offered guarantees over the future of the Lions, they are having to fight increasingly harder for their place in a cluttered calendar.

“I’d like to think I’ve fought really hard – I’ve not always been the most popular with members of the board or the unions – about how important the Lions is to the rugby calendar, to the players, for the people who are involved it’s something incredibly special,” said Gatland, who oversaw a series victory over Australia in 2013 before a draw with the All Blacks four years ago.

“I don’t think they always understand the significance of a Lions tour and representing the Lions, not just as players but also as coaches and management but also for the fans. I’m going to keep fighting and keep promoting the Lions. For the last 20 years I’ve spent in the UK, all that time in Ireland as well, I feel very privileged and honoured to have had those opportunities. I’d like to think I’ve been incredibly honest and transparent and worn my heart on my sleeve.”

Gatland also revealed that with no supporters able to travel to South Africa this year, around 50,000 could descend on Australia in four years’ time. He said: “We don’t have [fans] here, but I know about 80% of the people who were going to come here have rolled over for Australia in four years’ time – you could see up to 50,000 people touring and that’s unbelievable. The responsibility and the part that the Lions can play in representing the game globally and also people who aren’t rugby fans as well … I’m incredibly passionate about it and it’s such an important event to have on the calendar, not just for the Lions but the Southern Hemisphere as well.”

Meanwhile, Lions winger Duhan van der Merwe, who was born in South Africa before heading to Europe in his early 20s, has admitted he was cheering for the Springboks in their 2019 World Cup final victory over England. During his time in South Africa Van der Merwe played with a number of Saturday’s opponents, including the fly-half Handré Pollard, and while he is expecting some stick he is relishing the chance to square off against his compatriots.

“In any game you play you’ll always get some verbal abuse, people getting stuck into you,” he said. “I’m pretty used to it. I know I’m going to get a few boys holding on to me, pushing me here and there, but I’m just going to avoid and focus on my game, get stuck into those kinds of bits. I’ve got nothing to prove. I came over, I play for Scotland, and the British & Irish Lions, I am just going to go out there and show what I can do. [Against England] they were really physical and played really well. I was cheering them on so I was happy for them.”

Meanwhile, John Mitchell has left his role as England’s defence coach to join Wasps for next season. The New Zealander is leaving Eddie Jones’s staff just five months after signing a new contract. “Once we knew John was available, we prioritised getting him back to Wasps,” said the head coach, Lee Blackett.