Erasmus exposes rugby’s consistency and law application flaws in extraordinary dissection of first Lions Test
Rassie Erasmus offered to withdraw himself from active participation in the series between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions. But there is no way he can leave quietly now, after a ‘leaked’ video of him dissecting some abysmal officiating from the first Test sent the sport into a frenzy on Thursday.
There is a misconception that Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby and mischief-maker-in-chief, is rattled. Many, mostly in the UK, believe his extraordinary dissection of myriad mistakes by last week’s officials in the first Test between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions is a sign of a man teetering on the edge.
Erasmus, who masterminded the Boks Rugby World Cup 2019 win after only 18 months in charge of the team, does not do anything on a whim. He is not rattled; he is rattling sabres at the Lions using the same tactics they employed in the lead-up to the first Test.
Erasmus might not always be right, but he is always calculated when it comes to rugby decisions. His mindset is purely about finding a winning edge for teams under his charge.
Instead of hiding behind a carefully released narrative to selected media outlets, as Lions coach Warren Gatland did when skewering South African fourth official Marius Jonker last week, Erasmus has come out in full view and upset rugby’s firmament.
Never has an active coach, director of rugby or player fired such direct shots at rugby’s hierarchy. He laid bare its failure to raise the standard of officiating in an hour-long video going into forensic detail about how much referee Nic Berry and his assistants, including TMO Jonker, missed.
Erasmus has done it to put pressure on officials for the rest of the series, like Gatland did in Week One, and he’s done it to say to Springbok players that he has their backs.
Bok players, already stung after losing the first Test 22-17 on the back of a catalogue of ropey calls, will be even more fired up knowing they have a big boss willing to put his career and reputation on the line for them.
Catalogue of mistakes
In the 62-minute video, Erasmus highlighted 26 incidents that detail how officials had erred in the first Test. Erasmus went nuclear, ripping officials to shreds and exposing World Rugby’s complicity in allowing such shambolic officiating to go unchecked.
Some will say it’s whingeing after the Boks lost the first Test, but Erasmus gives forensic analysis of each infringement. It’s a masterclass in passive-aggressive theatre. If Gatland was “furious” over Jonker, Erasmus showed he is “furious” over poor officiating.
Critics say Erasmus has stepped over a line. Like the Aussie cricket team before the “Sandpaper-gate” scandal ruined their pristine image, the Lions seemed to have a monopoly on “the line.” The Lions implying Jonker might cheat because of his nationality was not crossing “the line”. But Erasmus calling out officials this way is crossing a line.
Let’s be clear. The Boks lost the first Test because the Lions were the better team. What Erasmus is asking through his deconstruction of the match is, “Why were the Lions the better team?”
Would the shape of the game have been the same had the Boks earned, say, three more penalties and the Lions two fewer? Would the shape of the contest have changed had the officials issued one or even two Lions with yellow cards as they should have? We’ll never know. The Boks lost by the way officiating shaped the match, and they were second-best under those circumstances.
That is what Erasmus was challenging. But it doesn’t fit the narrative that rugby authorities want — especially for a brand as prestigious as the Lions. “Don’t complain, even in private. Don’t whinge in public. You’re a sore loser if you do,” is the unwritten law. Well, the law is being tested.
Always controversy on Lions tours
And while this seems to be a massive issue now, it’s all part of the Lions show. Every Lions series has some or other controversy and the only common denominator in all of them is the Lions. Be it against the Wallabies, All Blacks or Springboks, Lions tours always erupt as the pressure mounts.
Lions supporters still lament the spear tackle on captain Brian O’Driscoll in the 2005 series by All Black skipper Tana Umaga and hooker Keven Mealamu. That was the Lions’ major excuse for the 3-0 shellacking they took in that series.
Schalk Burger’s eye gouge on Luke Fitzgerald at Loftus in 2009 and his subsequent yellow, instead of red card, is still used as a reason the Lions lost the second Test and therefore the series. Both incidents were not punished as severely as they should have been, there is no denying that.
Yet when the tables are turned by Erasmus highlighting a vast catalogue of poor decisions, he is labelled a bad loser.
World Rugby has been in touch with SA Rugby, but what exactly they can do to Erasmus or the Springbok team, is unclear. Erasmus is not a member of the coaching staff. They issued a bland statement, saying they’d “noted” the video.
Many will argue that there are official channels to use and that Erasmus should have used those. He spent nearly 10 minutes explaining how he tried to gain clarity from referee Berry and World Rugby on a tight timeline. Berry wouldn’t speak to him because he was “sleeping” at 5pm on Sunday afternoon.
The reality is that the Boks, and most other teams, have been through those channels for years without anything improving. Going back as far as Jake White’s era (2004-07), Bok coaches have diligently sent video clips to World Rugby of questionable decisions after games, seeking clarity with no success.
It’s the World Rugby way. “Let’s do this behind closed doors, chaps, and not make a fuss.” Erasmus blew those doors open and has set an interesting precedent.
It might backfire on the Springboks this weekend, but referee Ben O’Keeffe and his assistants are under more scrutiny than ever. O’Keeffe has been put in a difficult position because no one is perfect and now every mistake will be magnified.
Most sensible rugby watchers accept human error. What they can’t accept is continually obvious bad decisions.
The subtext of Erasmus’s “lesson” is that referees are not always right, but they can be consistent. Lions flank Tom Curry hit Faf de Klerk late and without arms. Under rugby laws, it’s a clear yellow card. Yet it was only a penalty.
So, Erasmus infers, if a Bok player hits a Lions opponent late and without arms in the second Test, will it only be a penalty too?
Erasmus also highlighted Berry’s lack of respect for Bok skipper Siya Kolisi. When Kolisi (rightly) points out that the Boks should have a penalty from an accidental offside, Berry literally laughs him off, only awarding the Boks a scrum.
“It’s almost like he’s having a laugh at Siya. He’s actually laughing at Siya,” Erasmus says in the video. “You can see Siya talking to him here but he’s [Berry] just ignoring him. The same with the TMO. That’s why we’re out in the media this week, because we feel we got no joy from anything because we were quiet last week, and we got no positive results on the field.”
In the end, after making his case, Erasmus says solemnly, “If you request that I’m not involved further with this Test match, no problem. If you request I’m not a water carrier, no problem. It’s your choice.
“If you think this was going over the top and shouldn’t go out to the media, then I did this in my personal capacity and not as part of the Springboks and I’ll withdraw myself from the Springbok management team.” DM
Watch the full Erasmus video here.
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