WHISTLING A DIFFERENT TUNE
Rassie extends olive branch to referees after admitting they need more ‘respect’
Springbok director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has admitted that he and by extension the Boks, need to give referees more respect.
In between having little digs at France with an “aww shucks, I’m not really trying to be controversial here,” demeanour, Springbok director of rugby Rassie Erasmus extended an olive branch to the refereeing fraternity.
Erasmus is, of course, the bane of rugby referees everywhere. He was the man who infamously dissected Nic Berry’s poor performance in the first Test against the British and Irish Lions in 2021. The 62-minute video ended up in the public domain ‘by accident.’
It was a scathing and humiliating public rebuke for Berry, but it was also a highly contentious approach by Erasmus, which led to a 10-month suspension from the game.
Erasmus still maintains his innocence relating to the leaking of the video, which he claims was never for public consumption. Be that as it may, it did enter the wider world and both Erasmus and Berry have paid a price for it.
Within weeks of his 10-month suspension ending, Erasmus was at it again when the Boks toured the northern hemisphere in November 2022.
After the Boks lost 19-16 to Ireland in Dublin and 30-26 to France in Marseille, Erasmus took to social media to highlight inconsistencies in officiating. His clips showed what he perceived to be rulings that went against the Boks. It led to another two-match ban.
It appears Erasmus has reflected on his actions and the negative impact that might have on the team.
Rugby has a lengthy and complex law book, where the application of the laws is often opaque. The reality is that referees will make mistakes and Erasmus’ continued public attacks on them, might have led to a situation where it backfired on the team.
With a crunch Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against hosts France in Saint-Denis on Sunday looming, Erasmus admitted he did not show enough respect to the men in the middle. But he stopped short of a full apology.
“For us [the Boks] the first word is ‘respect’,” Erasmus said this week. “I think definitely we got it wrong at stages, especially when we had the year off [due to Covid] in 2020, and then we went into the Lions series … the level of communication was really tough. I guess on both sides it led to frustration.”
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Erasmus reached out to retired referee Nigel Owens late last year about improving dialogue and understanding with match officials. He even invited Owens to take up a consulting role with the Springboks, which the Welshman declined, although he did offer advice.
“Last year I had a phone call with [former referee] Nigel Owens and I said ‘we really want to get this right, we don’t want people not to like us’.
“That is not the reason for us, maybe sometimes having differences and doing things in a way just to get a response. We wanted to know how things worked. I must say what we learned from those conversations is that no matter if we are right, the respect you show to the referee you will get back from that referee, even if he makes mistakes or you make mistakes.
“We also had to adapt our game a little bit. If you only rely on maul, it is difficult to referee a maul. If you only rely on a scrum, it’s difficult to referee a scrum. We had to change our game to make it easier for referees.”
It was obviously a well-timed moment to express these views, given the high stakes on Sunday. New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe, the man who had officiated the second Lions Test after Erasmus’ Berry blast, will have the whistle at Stade de France on Sunday.
O’Keeffe also handled the Boks’ crunch Pool B encounter against Ireland last month, which the Irish won 13-8. O’Keeffe appeared to miss Ireland centre Bundee Aki obviously sacking a Bok maul close to the line with the final play of the match.
Had the Boks scored it would’ve altered the 13-8 outcome in Ireland’s favour and perhaps the overall standings in the Pool. But Erasmus and the Boks have not mentioned the incident once in public.
It definitely appears that the Boks, and Erasmus have learnt and will not make public utterances anymore.
After all, Erasmus himself wrote in April 2022 in a column he penned for Daily Mail, that refereeing was an impossible task to achieve perfection.
“It’s impossible to expect a referee to make between 800 and 850 decisions in one match. The game isn’t allowed to flow anymore and you’re always going to end up with one team that is pissed off,” he wrote.
With the match against France looming, Erasmus reflected back to November 2022 when the Boks lost in Marseille. They played 67 minutes of the game with 14 men and the last 10 minutes with 13-men after Deon Fourie was yellow-carded in addition to Pieter-Steph du Toit’s 12th-minute red card.
Despite the defeat, the Boks were magnificent considering the circumstances. Erasmus revealed that he had seldom been prouder of the team.
“It was a fantastic experience. I sat with the reserves. When we got the red card on Pieter-Steph Du Toit it was actually one of the matches that we have lost that I felt the most proud in the dressing room afterwards with how players made plans,” Erasmus said.
“I actually enjoyed it. With all the respect to the French crowd, it was an unbelievable experience. You could feel it was buzzing and they were enjoying it.
“There was pressure on us and there was pressure on the French players and the referee was under pressure. The crowd are really exciting.
“To get that red card, and to be in that game until the last three or four minutes definitely helped us. I hope it will help us on Sunday. We have a lot of players [in the squad now] who were involved then.
“It was one of the most intensive and delightful situations to be in in my entire coaching career. I’m pretty sure Sunday is going to be the same.” DM