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Growling at the Lions: Rassie Erasmus attacks British & Lions’ duplicity in stinging verbal volley 

Boks coach Rassie Erasmus released a 62-minute video exposing and criticising abject officiating in the first Test between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions. (Photo: Johan Rynners / Gallo Images / Getty Images)
By Craig Ray
27 Jul 2021 16

South Africa’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, pulled no punches as he swapped social media for traditional media to put some verbal pressure on the British & Irish Lions on Tuesday.

In the build-up to the first Test of this difficult series between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions, it was the tourists who used the media to verbally jab their hosts.

Lions coach Warren Gatland claimed his side had dented the Boks’ “egos” when his side went down 17-13 to the virtual Test-strength SA “A” side. It was a strange claim for a side that had just lost, but it was in keeping with the Lions’ strategy of trying to put doubt in the minds of the Boks and officials.

Gatland took to criticising Rassie Erasmus’ role as “waterboy” for the Springboks, even though the Boks have not broken any World Rugby rules. Erasmus is certainly carrying messages onto the field, just as Lions kicking coach Neil Jenkins is for his team, but the Lions somehow see it as different. 

Later, Gatland was reported by at least three UK media outlets to be “furious” at the appointment of South African Marius Jonker as Television Match Official (TMO) for the first Test. That appointment was a World Rugby decision made because the original TMO, Brendon Pickerill, was unable to travel due to Covid restrictions.

Gatland was not directly quoted, but the stories that appeared in various UK publications were remarkably similar. It might even lead to the conclusion that it was fed to selected sympathetic media outlets.

The Lions questioned Jonker’s “neutrality” because he is South African. The only conclusion to be drawn from these stories is that the Lions were tacitly accusing Jonker of bias. Maybe even of prejudice. It doesn’t matter because the message was loud and clear – if there were any contentious decisions against them, the tourists could fall back on, “we told you so.”

As it turned out, the under-pressure Jonker made two crucial decisions that went against the Boks. Did it change the outcome of the 22-17 defeat for the world champions? Who knows, but what is clear, Jonker was in an invidious position and hung out to dry by World Rugby who offered no support or protection.

It’s important to remember that SA Rugby did not appoint Jonker and were not responsible. Jonker did not appoint himself either. It was a World Rugby clanger that the nugatory mother body has steadfastly refused to explain. They should have been publicly scolding Gatland and Lions for their outburst, expressing support for Jonker and owning up to their poor handling of the entire situation.

Instead, World Rugby’s media department continues to fawn over the Olympic Sevens while sleeping at the wheel, or wilfully dodging any responsibility for Jonker-gate.

So it has been Erasmus who has decided to return fire through social media via his Twitter handle, and possibly through a burner account belonging to a supposed “fan” named “Jaco Johan”. Erasmus retweeted some damning video from this account that highlighted a catalogue of first Test mistakes by the officials.

In one clip, Bok wing Cheslin Kolbe is played in the air and is left lying on the ground. Lions prop Mako Vunipola picks Kolbe up, as if to say, “get on with it”. If Kolbe had had a serious injury, it would’ve been a potentially dangerous action by Vunipola.

“As director of rugby, the medical department is also part of that role and we have the BokSmart programme aimed at player safety,” Erasmus explained.

“I just thought the way Cheslin was picked up while on the ground was dangerous, considering he could have been injured.

“We teach our primary school children from any age-group level to leave a player alone if they are injured, and we wouldn’t want our Springbok players to go and start picking up Lions players this weekend if they are lying on their back injured. So, I just felt it was an important one to get out there…”

 New Zealand ref for second Test

New Zealander Ben O’Keeffe will referee the second Test at Cape Town Stadium. Gatland is a New Zealander. Erasmus said he would never infer impropriety about that, and then immediately inferred it.

“When Warren talked last week about Marius Jonker… Warren is a great guy, I can tell you straight up, I’ve always enjoyed him and he’s a great man – but it was weird for me that people would question Marius’ integrity,” said Erasmus.

“It was almost like… we say that Ben O’Keeffe is a New Zealander and Warren is also a New Zealander… we will never say that. It wouldn’t sit well – the integrity of the game would be questioned and we would never do that.

“I did feel that when [Marius] was TMO-ing for a South African team, that didn’t sit well for me. He is a good friend of mine. I made a point of not speaking to him before the game.

“I don’t know if World Rugby should interfere, but if Ben O’Keeffe makes the wrong decisions on Saturday, you wouldn’t hear us saying it is because he is a New Zealander and Warren Gatland is from New Zealand.

“I think one should try to stay away from those things… I’ve made those mistakes many times, I’ve talked too much about the referees too many times.”

Erasmus kept a calm tone throughout, speaking without raising his voice, but it was obvious he was agitated. He fidgeted and rocked back and forth on his chair. One thing is certain in rugby – pre-match verbal sparring doesn’t happen when you’re supremely confident.

Gatland was under pressure last week. The Boks had hardly trained due to a Covid-ravaged squad and they had played one Test in 21 months. A Lions defeat, under those circumstances, would have been a rugby disaster.

That they only scraped in by five points against a Boks side playing as poorly as it did for half the match suggests that he had reason to be worried.

The Lions only barely won a game that by any measure they should have won comfortably. DM

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All Comments 16

  • “The Lions only barely won a game that by any measure they should have won comfortably.” This is a really silly remark. The fact is the Lions did win comfortably. At no stage did the Sprinboks look like they could string together a try in the last 20 minutes as the Lions were in complete control. And comfortable.

    • It certainly looked like they only scraped by. What is silly is picking out that one sentence, thinking readers will take you seriously.

  • Erasmus still wants to be the coach and to stay relevant. Hence all the twtitering ala Donald Trump. Leave the coaching to the new coach or just fire the guy and take over because why pay 2 salaries for one job?

    • Rassie and “the other guy” were both coaching the Boks to victory at RWC 2019 except “the other guy” was on the side of the pitch and Rassie was in the box. What is it precisely about the phrase “coaching staff” that you don’t understand as opposed to ‘Coach’? Or are you just angry the Head of Rugby likes to be there when the boys toss the egg about?

  • One red card and one yellow card against the Lions were clearly missed. Different result for sure if that had been the case

    • Careful! It’s almost like you’re implying that the Boks need their opposition to lose some men in order to gain a victory.

  • Second half blow out for us, pressure cooker broken, as a result we give away silly penalties (PSdT). Add insult to injury by ignoring a clear red or at very least a yellow card for Watson……Marius is in a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation here……

  • The reality of the situation is that the Boks were undercooked. Admitting to that was difficult for most diehard SA supporters, including the ex-Springboks in the match-day studio and on the field. All said the Boks would win. The match statistics confirmed the Boks copy-paste 2019 box- kicking strategy was poorly executed, the ‘bomb squad’ replacements made no positive impact, and the Boks ran out of steam in the second half. If infringements were not punished by the match officials, and were that serious, then the citing commissioner should have raised the matter/s. Whinging after the event is pointless.

    • They were undercooked, half raw actually, but still only lost with 5 points. Lets also keep in mind they actually touched down another three times, all disallowed, at least one of those on dubious grounds. I’m looking forward to a much better contest and a Bok win this Saturday.

  • It will be refreshing if the NZ guy can blow correctly whether a person competing for a ball is supporting his own body weight or not. Several crucial defensive steals by the Lions would require Olympian gymnastic ability and strength.

    Please get the ball to Cheslin so that he can make Coward Farrell look like a fool statue. Again.

    Anyway, it’s just a game and we have the world cup 🙂

  • I do wish coaches would keep away from public utterances and stop trying to play ‘mind games’. Let rugby supporters just enjoy a good game of rugby, win or lose, and don’t forget that the match officials are human beings just as the players are.

    • Agreed. What marred the whole thing for me was the spear on Willie – appalling decision-making. Other than that, I thought it was a good battle.

    • Don’t forget they have media obligations. The press are expert at twisting words and omissions. If the coaches say nothing you better believe journalists will twist it into something else. It’s a lose-lose but that’s the nature of the beast

  • Your headline refers to British duplicity! Just read any good book on history, even written by a Brit and you will see that the Brits have developed this to a fine art The Irish have been victims of this for centuries. Also poor Marius Jonker was in an invidious position and because of the pressure on him by Gatland disallowed two tries which were scored by SA. Much like NZ cricket umpires have statistically been shown to give bad decisions AGAINST their own countrymen. Finally someone should watch Farrell more closely – still up to his ‘arm holding’ tricks when competing for the ball.