South Africa

ERASMUS CONTROVERSY

Rassie saga reveals rugby’s flaws, and highlights need for change

South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.(Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini / Gallo Images)
By Craig Ray
20 Nov 2021 34

A lengthy ban for South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus was unsurprising and inevitable, but will World Rugby now address the core elements that led to the suspension?

Rassie Erasmus is a name that has become a byword for innovation and courage, or bullying and crass behaviour, depending on how you view his approach to winning.

The bulk of the media in the United Kingdom this week gloated about a 10-month ban handed down after Erasmus was found guilty on six charges of misconduct by a three-man World Rugby judicial committee.

The panel, chaired by Christopher Quinlan QC, with Nigel Hampton QC and Judge Mike Mika (both New Zealand), delivered some scathing comments about Erasmus’s behaviour in their deliberations.

But they did not address the 36 errors by Australia referee Nic Berry and his assistants which were highlighted in the now-infamous 62-minute video that was “leaked” to the public following the first Test between the Springboks and British & Irish Lions on 24 July.

The committee berated Erasmus’s conduct. “There is a difference between feedback and abuse,” the judgement stated. “This video was not feedback… it was an ad hominem attack, which as we have said lacked detached analysis or balance.”

They also found Erasmus to be “threatening a match official that unless a requested meeting took place, he would publish footage containing clips criticising the match official’s performance”.

The upshot is a situation that has broken the fragile relationship between the South African Rugby Union (Saru) and World Rugby. That relationship was already deeply strained after South Africa lost the right to host Rugby World Cup 2023 despite an independent assessment panel rating Saru’s as the best bid.

Members had agreed to vote in line with the recommendation of the independent committee, but in the end, behind-the-scenes horse-trading saw the tournament go to France. It was a body blow to Saru and underlined the sham of World Rugby’s processes.

In front of that acrimonious backdrop, a Rassie Erasmus-masterminded Boks winning Rugby World Cup 2019 by destroying England in the final in Yokohama deepened ill-feeling. And the Lions series has broken relations.

The fractious relationship won’t be helped by the fact that Saru and Erasmus immediately said they would appeal the sanction. They will formally lodge their papers before the 24 November deadline. Another World Rugby-appointed appeals committee is set to be named shortly.

Everyone’s guilty

The content of Erasmus’s video was devastating and embarrassing for both Berry and World Rugby. It highlighted the problems the sport faces – namely poor officiating and the lack of consistent protocols to address issues between teams and officials.

But it was delivered with the subtlety of goalline ruck by a clearly frustrated Erasmus, who is many things, none of which is a fool. He knew that a video of this nature in the public domain in the week before a crucial match (in this case the second Lions Test) would be the rugby equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off. It was, and it did.

There are no winners in this debacle. Erasmus overstepped the mark and despite a defence that cast doubt on whether he intentionally leaked the video or not, there was enough circumstantial evidence for the panel to believe he did leak it.

One of the pieces of evidence the committee used to reach that conclusion was the following message from Erasmus to Berry the day after the first Test, which the Boks lost 22-17: “Just a heads up from our side!! We feel the pressure which the Lions attempted to put on your team of four through the media did actually work well for them!! While we will be doing the same this week I think you will note that ours is more factual and honest!!”

Erasmus was referring to reports in many leading UK media outlets that Lions coach Warren Gatland was “furious” that South African Marius Jonker had been appointed as Television Match Official for the series. That was a World Rugby appointment. In the event, Jonker botched a few crucial calls, highlighted in the video, which was what Erasmus referred to.

Although the committee believed Erasmus leaked the video, it never categorically proved that he did, rather saying that the “sensible inference” is that Erasmus was behind the leak.

That will be one of the key battleground points in the appeal.

Erasmus’s tactics, while hailed in SA, did have consequences. Berry’s reputation is tarnished and he has suffered in the court of public opinion.

“I feel that Mr Erasmus engaged in a character assassination of me on social media,” Berry said in a written statement to the tribunal.

“I have spent many years trying to build my reputation as an international referee and in the course of his video which was posted online, Mr Erasmus has caused immeasurable damage.

“Though a small proportion of the rugby community will follow the outcome of this matter, and in the process obtain an accurate account of what really occurred, the wider rugby community will only be aware of me in the context of this incident. I feel that regardless of the outcome and any sanctions imposed, my reputation as a referee and person will forever be tarnished.”

Erasmus also knew that he would face severe consequences if the video were made public and alludes to it in the footage. But it had the desired impact because the officiating improved over the second and third Tests and most crucially, Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi seemed to be afforded the same respect, which the video clearly shows Berry denied him in the first Test.

It was clear that Erasmus’s intention was to break the narrative of the “mystique” of the Lions and the counter-narrative that the Boks are bullying blunt instruments. It worked, but at a great cost.

Erasmus has been banned from all rugby activities for two months. He is also suspended from all match-day activities, including coaching and media engagement, until 30 September 2022. That means he won’t be allowed at Twickenham when the Boks meet England in a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final this weekend.

He has also suffered severe reputational damage because he has been portrayed in the judgement as a threatening bully. It’s no wonder he is appealing because that is a huge stain to carry in the relatively small world of elite rugby coaching.

Saru, Erasmus’s employers, were also charged on two counts but only found guilty on one relating to Erasmus.

“Saru did not ensure that Rassie Erasmus complied with the World Rugby Code of Conduct and/ or permitted Mr Erasmus to commit acts of misconduct; and/or did not publicly correct any comments or publications by or on behalf of Mr Erasmus that amounted to misconduct.

“Saru permitted and/or did not prevent Siya Kolisi and Mzwandile Stick to make comments at a press conference on 30 July 2021 that were not disciplined or sporting and adversely affected the game of rugby; and/or did not publicly correct any such comments so as adversely affected the game of rugby.”

Saru has been fined R400,000 and must issue an apology to the relevant match officials.

Kolisi snub

While the committee is very sympathetic to Berry and the distress the video caused him, which is not unreasonable, it displays some staggering bias towards Bok captain Siya Kolisi.

Erasmus’s video highlights that Berry did not treat Kolisi with the same respect as he did Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones, even laughing the Bok captain off at one stage. This incensed Erasmus and upset Kolisi, who in a press conference on 30 July before the second Test, confirmed how he was disrespected.

“I didn’t feel respected at all, I didn’t feel I was given a fair opportunity,” Kolisi told the media. “I didn’t get given the same access to the referee and there’s proof. If you watch the game again, you’ll definitely be able to see yourself.”

But the committee demonstrated subtle bias in reviewing the situation.

“We have no reason to doubt the genuineness of his (Siya’s) feelings,” the judgement read. “However, that is not the same as asserting as a fact that he had been disrespected nor that those feelings are correct.

“During his testimony Nic Berry told us that he had ‘massive respect’ for Siya Kolisi as a person and as a player. We accept without reservation Nic Berry’s evidence that he, and his officiating team, did not intentionally disrespect Siya Kolisi.”

Kolisi’s lived experience was diminished by the panel as not being “a fact”, yet Berry and his team’s actions were “unintentional”.

The panel “without reservation” accepted Berry’s version, but had reservations about Kolisi’s stated experience. It was a startling viewpoint – almost as if the black man’s experience was invalidated by the white man’s actions being “unintentional”.

The future

The core content of the video, the 36 errors Erasmus believes were committed, are not addressed, other than showing a transcript where Berry concedes to making 17 errors. So the status quo remains.

World Rugby continues to, publicly at least, ignore the content of Erasmus’s video, which should be deeply concerning at all levels. If Berry even made half as many errors as Erasmus says, and the referee concedes to 17, then the sport has a problem.

Former respected referee Nigel Owens was scathing of Erasmus’s approach in a column for The Telegraph, underlining how the sport’s governing body and the officials are circling the wagons.

“I would say that the Rassie Erasmus episode has been dealt with fairly. It is a pretty significant ban, which sends a clear message that this type of abuse is unacceptable,” Owens writes in his column.

“Of course, as referees, we have to be accountable by having conversations with coaches after games. We have to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I got that wrong’, when it makes sense to do so.

“I don’t think it can be open season on referees like that. The referees should be able to go to their refereeing coach, look through each of their decisions to see which are right, which are wrong and which are 50-50 calls where there is no right or wrong.

Then, if required, that manager can then go to World Rugby and get verification before issuing a clarification on a big decision.”

Which all sounds great in theory. But it was precisely the frustration at the “procedure” and hurdles he had to jump through to gain clarity, which led to the Erasmus video being made.

Officials saying “we’re human and make mistakes, but we’ll do better next time” without any recourse or consequences is no longer good enough. Erasmus decided to bypass the accepted procedure, understanding that he was breaching the rules. But the alternative was doing the same thing over again and expecting a different outcome. He overstepped the mark and will rightly pay the price. But will World Rugby use this episode to ponder the message, or only use it to happily shoot the messenger? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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All Comments 34

  • Hi Craig…very good article indeed. Today, at 17:05 SA time, the Springboks will face England at Twickenham with more that 82,000 spectators expected. Due to the Rassie Erasmus saga, and the immense criticism of the British press of Erasmus, SA Rugby, and the Bok players, that I expect an most volatile reception of the Boks by the British fans, with “BOO’s” vibrating through the stands. The pressure that the Springboks will be under is likely to be much bigger than experience by them at the WC 2019 final. I feel for Kolisi and his team, because even if they win, they will still be boo’d of the stadium by the partial British fans.

  • Professional rugby is a major industry with on-field decisions that have big money implications for players and sponsors. The officials are (largely) also professional. Match officials should be held responsible for poor decisions. When last was an official banned for blatant poor performances?

    Technology has moved on a lot since the game started as an amateur game.

    Let’s look to the other large professional games. In US football, each team has a small number of formal objections – I think three. If objection is upheld, the chance is kept. Soccer now uses technology to decide goals, cricket the same with LBW. Cricket has something similar to team objections in some formats. FIFA caters for post-match reviews that can include a result being set aside and replay of the match. Delays? Advertisers will love it but it will keep officials on their toes.

    Rassie does push the limits but few would doubt he has the best interest of the game and players in mind.

  • Thanks Craig for good balance. There can be no doubt that Rassie knew he would receive some form of sanction – even if he was not sure how severe. So in my mind, he took a calculated guess, at some risk to himself, on getting the issue of referee performance out from behind WR’s bureaucratic shield and into the public domain for open and transparent deliberation. A coach having a moan after a game is usually forgotten very quickly and it’s difficult to articulate all the errors in an article or press conference. The Rassie video, on the other hand, very clearly articulated each refereeing error, painting a clear picture of Berry’s poor performance. Even if one only counts Berry’s own admission of 17 errors, this is simply unacceptable at this level of the game. Nic Berry is trying to argue the indefensible, hoping that WR will continue as his shield. He would do far more credit to his career if he came out and simply admitted that he got a lot wrong on that day and it’s not the standard to which he aspires. Referee’s will be under increasing pressure and intense public scrutiny surrounding their performance and WR will be compelled to address their own lack of professionalism, fairness and transparency within the modern era of the game. The dinosaur era of WR’s autocratic diktat and hiding behind bureaucratic processes to simple shield incompetence are over, regardless of what sanction they maintain over Rassie.

  • Hardly ever use social media, but there is an analysis of this whole soggy affair of Rassie posted a day or so ago on YouTube by a channel called “Rugby Ascendant”, the owner an American with a love of rugby in its totality. Has no idea what his name his, but his totally objective and independent view is something to behold, in contrast what you find in articles in the British press.

  • Thank you for an excellent article, Craig. I acknowledge openly that I am on the “bullying and crass behaviour” side of the fence. What seems to have been lost in this sad saga is Rassie’s timing of the leaking of the video. His outburst ruined what should have been a great series between two great teams. The refereeing officials for the second and third tests were different from the first test so there was no urgency for Rassie to take his action in the early stages of the series.

    • And that is the best you can do? The video was made before the 2nd test, and he did not leak it himself, period. One can only surmise who would have officiated if this very same video was not brought to the officials attention long before it was leaked. Another Berry himself referee, deeply envolved in Gatlant’s clever manipulation and backing of World Rugby (or is it England and their colonies Rugby?)

        • Mr. Ross, the war ended 119 years ago, so please do not go into that. My entire family on both mother and father’s side was wiped-out in that war, virtually all in concentration camps, by the English. And still to be called a Dutchman just 2 days ago on DM by commentators to an article does not sit well with me. So please, just shut up. Your opinion is useless.

          • Mr G0us. I don’t doubt you suffered some family tragedy during the Anglo Boer War. Your overwrought statement can, however, simply not be accurate. If true, HOW are you here? The sanction on Rassie was correct. His behaviour? Untenable. This is not some Anglo conspiracy…

  • I’m 100 % behind Rassie,if you want change and more neutrality and fair officiating, you can’t make refs “untouchables”.World rugby runs the show ,are autocratic and never adapted to modern technology, time for change,rugbylovers ,read fans are sick and tired of bad refereeing.Become accountable, or go fossilize at home,together with WR “old farts”the quote of an ex England captain, Will Carling to be precise.I rest my case.GO BOKKE!!!!

    • Ditto thx. But SA is so disadvantaged this afternoon , with 82000 aggressive England fans whom will try their collective utmost to break down the Boks. Win or loose is not the matter, it is the manner in which South African rugby is being ridiculed. The Boks is the only sports team in SA which has a Board strong enough support the team, and Director, unlike Cricket, where everything is a typical “all for me/us” rather than whole-heartedly the national team. SA Rugby Board in support of Rassie is applaudable, and regardless what happens from here, I support you 100%, as well as Rassie. For the strength in character for exposing World Rugby for what is is, despite the pain and insults he has to endure as a result of it

  • Foot note#Refs can also stop telling or warning players the whole time “leave” “Dont” “no 12 fall back” etc.You are actually stopping teams from getting penalties.In olden days rugby players weren’t spoon fed,they were just punished when they transgressed.WR is turning rugby into a farce of a stage play.

  • I 100% support Rassie and SARU in this. WR “procedures” don’t work and if nothing had been done WR would continue to sit on its haunches and shoddy refereeing would continue. It needed someone to shake WR by the neck and Rassie and SARU have done it. The cost may be high but it will be worth it in the end.

      • Coen did you see that try by Wales where the Welsh player slapped the ball down when the audience outside centre passed to the wing.Ref says he slapped it backwards and picked it up and ran through for a legal try.My opinion is penalty for Australia.Ref is pathetic

        • I agree Charles…thx for your earlier comment as well….Goss, its been a long season. But at least on-the-field action compensates for of-the-field dramas

          • I blew in 1 game,it’s an irrelevant question,you don’t have to be a ref to know the rules.Besides there is 2 line judges and a tmo.Ive also umpires in a cricket game or 2.Referees can never be “untouchable “if you are a bugger up ,you must be held accountable.Kitch Christie never played big rugby but he coached the boks to their 1st world champ title.Fans are not fodder for the whims of referees.Without consistency any sport becomes a farce

    • I agree Charles…thx for your earlier comment as well….Goss, its been a long season. But at least on-the-field action compensates for of-the-field dramas

      • Charles, look out today for an article by Judith February, which appeared in DM168 newspaper yesterday I read it in Press reader, as the closest P&P store from me the sells it is some 100km away.. Its called: “Lead Mr President, Lead”

        • Coen, I glanced at it but it deserves a thorough read after I’ve recovered from yesterdays wine consumption. Too much rugby yesterday meant some over indulgence of the grape juice.

          • To be honest, also feel the same….but the 3 matches yesterday was well worth it

  • Elsewhere i asked if Rassie had been found guilty of dishonesty or exaggeration on the one hand, or of not following due process?
    The judgement found him guilty of the latter and is trying to sweep the former under the carpet.
    Unless something is done about monitoring the standard of rugby, the game we love will slowly become farcical and inconsequential. It will fade away

  • There was a time when “understand the referee and don’t play into the penalties” used to be the message given to teams after a match where the reffing was considered unfair. If you’re in the middle, you are still a smaller team than either side has supporting them and – in case anyone needs reminding of the laws – there is a basic statement of where the laws stand: Law 6.5.a is right there. That said, if refereeing is made too precise, we will see very little game play and this will turn many more people away from the game. There was actually a better way for Rassie and SARU to handle this – they just didn’t like it. In my mind, it is this sanction which is considered more important by WR. It is tough enough getting people to referee games at any level – and attacks like this do not help. WR is looking at the wider impact on referees at every level of the game because if you only recruit perfection, you won’t get any rugby.

  • Why did Pichot leave world rugby.Because Beaumont and Co. control rugby and referees,and have a monopoly running autocratic style organization.Non accountability is so nice for referees, once the pletoria of new rules were in place you can basically blow like you want.Mr Beaumont try and become professional and give rugby lovers fair refereeing otherwise you are gonna make the game die out

  • The referee of an important test match admits to 17 refereeing mistakes in that test. WR says and does nothing.

    Rassie criticises those mistakes and is savagely censured by WR, almost costing him his livelihood.

    What kind of organisation behaves like that???