Opinionista Trevor Norwitz 4 August 2021

Rassie Erasmus’ video has lessons for World Rugby on exposing ‘unconscious bias’ of officials

Part of the beauty of rugby — alongside the extreme physical demands on players, the extraordinary range of skills required, the strategic and tactical variety and the thrill of controlled violence — is how the game prepares one to face the real world.

Trevor Norwitz

Trevor Norwitz practises law in New York City. He was raised in Cape Town, attended SACS and UCT, and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

The lover of rugby, whether player or spectator, is trained — no, compelled — to accept grey areas and to have a very high tolerance for injustice, both common features of real life. Unlike simpler games (soccer or tennis, for example) the rules of rugby are not all crisp and clear-cut. Being a multidimensional full-contact sport, where injury or worse is a constant possibility, its rules are complex, subject to interpretation, and continuously evolving. Even more than other sports then, it is not just about winning: it is about doing your best and enjoying yourself. 

It is a truism of rugby that if you want to be assured of winning, you have to utterly dominate your opponent. As between two evenly matched teams, victory and defeat will be almost arbitrary, sometimes coming down to one mistake or a flash of individual brilliance, frequently to the “bounce of the ball” or the “rub of the green” or, even more often, the blow of the whistle. 

Which brings us to Rassie Erasmus and his unprecedented 62-minute video dissection of officials after the first Test between the Springboks and British & Irish Lions. 

This week World Rugby announced that South Africa’s director of rugby will face a disciplinary hearing for his comments and criticisms of the officials. 

The issue is not the substance of his hour-long video diatribe. One could argue that some of the examples Erasmus gives are marginal or balanced out by others he omits, but on the whole he makes a compelling case that the Lions benefited from at least a half-dozen awful refereeing decisions, any one of which could have changed the outcome of the match. In substance he was clearly right. 

The question is whether he should have done it. And a follow-up question is, what should World Rugby do about it now? 

When I first heard that Rassie had made this video, my initial instinct was to wince with regret. I knew that he would be right as a matter of substance. Many of the most egregious examples he cited were points that I and others had noticed and decried in real time and after analysis.   

But this felt like one of those occasions when you just suck it up and commit to doing better next time. This was not a match where South Africa had a right to feel that the Boks had been robbed, that the better team had lost. 

The Boks were not able to turn their first-half dominance on the field into dominance on the scoreboard (even if a few howlers — such as the Itoje “steal” — cost them some of their best opportunities). And then they let the visitors come back in the second half, even winning some crucial phases, which left the result a toss-up. True, any of a handful of bad calls going the right way could have changed the result. But this wasn’t Bryce Lawrence in the Rugby World Cup 2011 quarterfinal. 

Differential treatment 

Having rewatched the tape though, I no longer believe that Rassie was wrong to make it. I had not fully appreciated the aspects of equal respect and dignity that were highlighted in several of the clips, and which had apparently been specifically discussed in advance of the match. It may have been more “sportsmanlike” for Rassie to “suck it up”, but an important teachable moment would have been lost.     

The differential treatment accorded the captains on the field — and by extension the teams — was palpable. Alun Wyn Jones, the tall white man, senior statesman of four great rugby nations, stuck to the referee like glue and was at all times accorded maximum respect. On several occasions when Siya Kolisi was trying to point out (correctly as it turned out) errors that should at least be checked, he was treated dismissively, at least once even derisively. And he felt it. 

I am not suggesting that referee Nic Berry is racist. I very much doubt he is. But he is human and no less susceptible to unconscious bias than any other person. 

Nor am I blaming Jones for using his privilege to press his team’s advantage. That is just what privileged people do and he was doing the best he could for his team. But I am saying that rugby needs to do better. Referees need to be trained to do better. And if Rassie had not taken this golden opportunity to point out this discrepancy, this sort of behaviour would simply continue.      

What should World Rugby do about it? Learn from it and use it to make rugby better. And while they are at it, they can announce an ongoing effort to improve the rules of the game to make it more enjoyable to watch and cut down on second-guessing. Rugby fans don’t expect or want the precision of American football (or the ads while referees deliberate), but just want the game to flow, to allow the players to show their magic. And they want — or should want — all players and teams to be treated with equal dignity. 

What will they do though? It looks like they may choose to discipline the carrier of an important message and not learn the lesson. It is likely that the “independent” disciplinary panel will be dominated by representatives of the former colonial powers and members of their “Commonwealth”. 

How they act will be illustrative. It is hard to imagine that they will take no action, as they clearly want to discourage this sort of behaviour in the future, but they need to be careful not to go overboard. 

They have already effectively acknowledged that it was Lions coach Warren Gatland who started the Whistle War. His clever but cynical mind games in the run-up to the first Test paid huge dividends for the Lions, while South Africa’s restraint only worked to their detriment. 

Rassie will always be a hero to South Africans. World Rugby might also make him a martyr. DM


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All Comments 4

  • Beautifully written and with great insight, respect and even a dash of humility! Now let’s see if the powers act accordingly.

  • The ‘old farts’ are not willing nor able to learn from any mistakes. Nor will they ever be willing to take good advise to improve the game. What they decide is the right way is the right way and that’s how it will be. That’s the way of the commonwealth. (They still have a monarchy for goodness’ sake!)

  • Great article, totally agree. One hopes World Rugby take the opportunity to confront their own unconscious bias but that is a big “If”.

  • I never noticed the dismissive treatment of Siya Kolisi until I watched Rassie’s video. The on-field poor decision making of Berry, compounded by the ineptitude and vacillations of Jonkers (who once seemed to me to be a pillar of impartiality), were just that – pathetic decision making.

    This treatment of our captain Siya, a humble and committed gentleman, is unacceptable and an affront to the dignity of every South African. Berry and the assistant refs ought to face their own hearing for this alone.


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