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