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