Peter Jackson: Lions saved by Judge Jonker whose impartiality they questioned

TMO Marius Jonker's impartiality made the Lions hierarchy look mean-spirited, at best
Peter Jackson: Lions saved by Judge Jonker whose impartiality they questioned

Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones talks to referee Nic Berry during the first Test against South Africa at Cape Town Stadium. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

As Judge Jonker from Kimberley examined the evidence, the Lions stood teetering on the edge of an abyss almost as deep as The Big Hole in His Honour’s diamond-mining hometown.

For better or worse, the match, perhaps even the series, hinged on the verdict. Australian referee Nic Berry declaring a Springbok try, subject to forensic inspection, was not the only reason why 15 men in red on the pitch and tens of thousands in Lions’ shirts clustered around the rugby planet feared the worst.

In an act that did them no favours, the British-and-Irish management criticised the appointment of a South African TMO to adjudicate in a series involving South Africa. They accused their hosts of a “lack of foresight”, conveniently ignoring the Covid restrictions which prevented the original choice, New Zealander Brendon Pickerill, from making the journey.

The Lions could have simply acknowledged the status of the South African in question as a former World Cup referee of long-standing repute. Instead they objected to his appointment.

Warren Gatland was widely reported as being furious and fuming, even raging. Although he didn’t say as much publicly, the head coach’s displeasure seemed to convey an unspoken message: We don’t think we’ll get a fair deal.

How ironic that the Lions found salvation in a one-man judge and jury whose impartiality they had deigned to question. Marius Jonker did what Marius Jonker always does, without fear or favour, and in doing so he made the Lions hierarchy look mean-spirited, at best.

He had not flinched over hairline decisions before, like the one four minutes from the end of England-New Zealand in November 2018 with the All Blacks clinging to a one-point lead. Jerome Garces awarded Sam Underhill a try in the corner, then, on second thought, referred it to the TMO — Jonker.

After painstaking analysis of almost geometric complexity, he told the French referee: “It’s offside so you need to change your on-field decision to a penalty (for the All Blacks).”

Not for Jonker the cop-out of leaving the referee to stay with his on-field decision on the basis it was too close to call. Willie le Roux’s front boot may have been less than a foot ahead of the ball but offside makes no distinction between a few inches and the proverbial mile, as Courtney Lawes found out that autumn day at Twickenham.

Nobody on Sky Sports spoke of seeing any reason to disallow the try which made Jonker banging his gavel in favour of the Lions sound all the more surprising. “It’s very tight,” he told Berry by way of understatement. “But we believe green 15 (le Roux) was ahead of the ball.”

At which point, former Lion Will Greenwood, never short of a word, said, as if he had just taken a double knee: “Marius Jonker! All is forgiven…”

Forgiven for what? Rubbing out the Underhill try because he enforced the law? Jonker’s verdict was clear, decisive, and, above all, impartial. Had it gone against the Lions, nobody will ever know how the game might have panned out beyond being infinitely more difficult to win given Faf de Klerk’s try four minutes later which again required Jonker’s expert adjudication.

The one trick he appeared to miss left the Lions and Hamish Watson, in particular, mightily relieved. Berry let the substitute flanker off without even a wag of the finger for a tip-tackle which did for Pollard. Jonker let it go, prompting Nigel Owens, the most-capped referee of all, to pronounce Watson “very lucky”.

Sam Warburton underlined the Lions’ escape: “I wish I’d been that lucky ten years ago,” he said, referring to his being sent off for the same offence in the Wales-France semi at the 2011 World Cup.

As for an apology to their hosts about complaining at the choice of a South African TMO, there wasn’t one, though Gatland did say he was “pleased with the officials”.

And with ample reason...

History on Lions’ side but Springboks have rebounded before

Only once over the course of half a century have the Lions won the opening Test and lost the series. In Australia 20 years ago, the best British and Irish squad of the professional era walloped the Wallabies at The Gabba on such a scale that the damage seemed irreparable.

Brian O’Driscoll having announced himself by making one and scoring another of four dazzling tries, the Lions started again in Melbourne where they had left off in Brisbane seven days later. The Aussies were going from rack to ruin until one careless pass from Jonny Wilkinson invited Joe Roff to begin turning the game upside down.

Nathan Grey’s brutal assault on Richard Hill left England’s three-dimensional back row forward with a broken jaw and the Lions went to pieces all over the place. Instead of wrapping up the series, they fell victims of a 35-point swing, from winning 29-13 to losing 16-35 and, with it, the series.

Nobody of a Lions persuasion ought to be one bit surprised at the Springbok capacity for picking themselves off the canvas. They effected a 35-point swing in successive home Tests against England seven years before the Lions suffered the same fate.

Francois Pienaar’s team lost the first one by a record margin 32-15, a humiliation felt all the more because it happened at the most sacred of all Springbok rugby shrines: Loftus Versveld in Pretoria. The Boks made six changes for the return in Cape Town and paid England back for the thrashing they had given them by dishing out an even bigger one: 27-9.

Despite that, they sacked their coach, Ian McIntosh, replaced him with the late Kitch Christie, and barely six months later they won the World Cup. The Lions will know what’s coming…

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