The British & Irish Lions kept their counsel on Thursday, and why wouldn’t they?
When the opposition camp is pushing out hour-long videos online complaining about the referee two days out from the pivotal and potentially deciding game in this intriguing Test series with South Africa, there is scarcely any need to respond and stoke the braai further.
Warren Gatland’s work in the off-field mind games appears to have reached peak effect as SA Rugby’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, waded once more into the shark-infested social media bandwidth with a 62-minute pre-recorded address to camera, the video of which was posted on the Vimeo platform.
In it, South Africa’s 2019 World Cup-winning coach highlights a host of officiating discrepancies from the first Test that he feels did not give the Springboks a fair chance or parity of esteem against the Lions last Saturday, rounding on referee Nic Berry of Australia and also television match official Marius Jonker, the South African called up by World Rugby as a late replacement for the neutral official named initially.
Erasmus also offers to walk away from the Springboks management team for the final two Tests but how much more difficult this now makes current head coach Jacque Nienabaer’s job now one can only guess as he attempts to engineer the victory at Cape Town Stadium tomorrow that will keep his side alive in this series following their 22-17 loss to the Lions last Saturday.
Erasmus knew he was risking sanction from World Rugby, both personally and for the Springboks, with his criticisms of the officials appointed by the governing body.
“In my position as director of rugby,” he said, “if this causes that I am not allowed to be a water carrier, that’s fine. I’ll step away from being a water carrier.
“If it means we’re going to get a fine, I’ll step away from the team management. If it means the Springboks will be in trouble, I’ll say I did this in isolation — it’s me personally who did this, not SA Rugby or the Springboks.
“I believe in fairness and in the system and that two teams must have an equal chance of competing in a match.
I’m not saying the referee was a cheat at all. I’m just saying that we just wanted clarity on a Sunday night, which we got on a Tuesday.
“I am not very convinced with the clarity that we got from Nic Berry from this match.”
To prove his point, Erasmus shows 26 clips during the video which highlight the perceived mistakes by the officials. He said he had asked for feedback from Berry on Sunday only to be told the Australian was asleep and so he bypassed official channels and went straight online.
It was another win for Gatland, who has appeared to get under the skin of Erasmus throughout this tour, first poking fun at his role as a water carrier in the South Africa A game, which has continued into the Test series.
Erasmus was then at the centre of an unusual Twitter spat following South Africa A’s win over the tourists two weeks ago in which, replying to the Irish Examiner’s reporting of Gatland’s criticism of TMO Jonker’s decision to show a yellow card rather than red to scrum-half Faf de Klerk for a high hit in that game, he retweeted video clips from an anonymous account, @JacoJohan, highlighting Lions wrongdoing.
On Tuesday of this week, Erasmus, 48, sat next to Nienaber in an online media conference as the head coach named his team for the second Test and said he wanted to be present to answer questions about his social media activity and to deny speculation he was behind the Jaco Johan tweets.
When Jonker was appointed to the Tests last week as a replacement for New Zealand’s Brendon Pickerill, Gatland let it be known he was “furious” about World Rugby’s lack of a contingency for arranging a neutral replacement.
Now Erasmus has suggested Gatland’s comments swayed Jonker’s decision-making the other way, highlighting the decision to disallow a Willie Le Roux try in the second half last Saturday for being in front of the kicker as he began his kick-chase en route to scoring.
Rassie’s social media output has been polarising — South Africans tend to back him, the Lions choose to ignore that their man has lit the touchpaper, instead citing official channels as the only way to proceed.
It is all pretty unedifying for what is supposed to be the pinnacle of so many people’s rugby careers.
Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones chose to steer well clear. He was also diplomatic when asked whether all this is good for the game. “I think it highlights the passion and the commitment that people have for the sport, right or wrong with the method it’s not for me to comment on,” the skipper said.
“Ultimately, the sport is in a good place and hopefully it can go forward in a good place as well.”
Fingers crossed on that one.