How the Lions series turned ugly: Rassie Erasmus' win-at-all-cost mentality poisoned a series built on goodwill

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South Africa vs Lions, second Test and Rassie Erasmus.
South Africa vs Lions, second Test and Rassie Erasmus.

You wonder whether in his more measured moments the Rassie Erasmus ever stops to consider all the sacrifice, cooperation and hard work that went into staging this Lions tour in South Africa, which has now descended into such acrimony.

You wonder too whether the Springboks director of rugby remembers the name, Levan Maisashvili. The Georgian head coach remains in a Johannesburg hospital having contracted Covid-19 following the warm-up match against South Africa on July 2. On July 17 it was reported that he had suffered serious lung damage and requires a ventilator. His phone has been switched off since July 15. 

The Georgians had volunteered to provide warm-up matches for South Africa, who had not played since the 2019 World Cup. Unlike the Springboks and Lions players, they arrived here unvaccinated. After the match, six members of the Georgian party tested positive for Covid while 26 cases swept the Springbok camp.

There were allegations at the time that the South Africa players and family members had left their Covid-19 bubble for coffee mornings and commercial engagements. Erasmus, quickly pointed all the blame on Maisashvili and the Georgians. “I think the moment that you bring teams from the outside in – not that I’m pointing fingers at Georgia – it is a very tough situation to control,” Erasmus said. “After we played Georgia that’s when all our infections started.” Erasmus would later use the same linguistic device in his infamous 62 minute monologue on Nic Berry where he said “I’m not saying the referee was a cheat at all” before implying just that.

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Staging a Lions series in a country gripped by both a devastating third wave remains a considerable achievement. It has required a herculean effort from administrators, broadcasters and sponsors to get the matches staged, especially without fans. The Lions players, meanwhile, have been in a bubble away from families for the past seven weeks. The referees too have been away from their loved ones. 

Unfortunately, none of that sacrifice is likely to be remembered as the collective goodwill that went into staging this tour has been incinerated by backbiting and burner accounts. The ugliness off the pitch has seeped on to it. The second Test lasted an astonishing 115 minutes and yet there was only 30min 30sec of ball in play time. 

When did it turn so nasty? The Springboks claimed that Lions fired the first shots when Gatland questioned whether Faf de Klerk should have seen red for his high tackle on Josh Navidi in the South Africa ‘A’ game and the Lions raised concerns about the appointment of South African Marius Jonker as television match official for the Test series when Brendon Pickerill, the original official, pulled out.

Really the bluetouch paper was lit the moment that Erasmus demanded a second fixture against South Africa ‘A’, implying the Lions would be risking their players’ health by playing their scheduled fixture against the Stormers. His request was not well received to say the least. 

Then came the Jonker controversy, although as Gatland repeated on Saturday night the Lions anger was always at World Rugby’s lack of contingency planning rather than Jonker himself. “It’s amazing to me how the narrative changed with regard to the TMO,” Gatland said.

Instead the Springboks reached for the victim card, just as they did in the third Test of the 2009 series when they wore the ludicrous “Justice 4 Bakkies” armbands after Botha, their second row, was banned for dislocating Adam Jones’ shoulder. This time what started as a drip drip of criticism of Berry’s decisions in their first Test defeat, via a burner Twitter account, swelled into a full-scale waterboarding via Erasmus’ 62-minute video. 

Nic Berry, the referee awards a penalty to the British & Irish Lions during the 1st Test match between the South Africa Springboks and the British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on July 24, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. - GETTY IMAGES
Nic Berry, the referee awards a penalty to the British & Irish Lions during the 1st Test match between the South Africa Springboks and the British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on July 24, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. - GETTY IMAGES

It ranks as the most sustained public assault on an official by a coach in living memory. It is hard to decide what’s the most astonishing aspect: the false equivalence of the Springboks comparing their hitjob on Berry with the Lions being upset at the appointment of a non-neutral TMO or World Rugby’s deafening silence on the issue. Expect Erasmus to be hit by a fine and a severe warning about his future conduct at some point in 2027. 

For Erasmus, the ends justify the means. Just as the Lions got the rub of the green in the first Test so the Springboks got all the big decisions in the second with the officiating team somehow talking themselves out of believing the evidence of their own eyes when Conor Murray landed on his head after being taken out in the air by Cheslin Kolbe. It also resulted in the first half extending past the hour mark as the officials struggled to maintain control without recourse to the TMO.

In the sparse moments that rugby was played, there was a poverty of ambition from both sides. The main attacking tactic was hoping the opposition back three spilling the ball, which the Springboks conclusively won. Hearts and minds be damned. 

Even if the statesman-like veneer that Erasmus created for himself on the Chasing the Sun documentary (of which he was an executive producer) has been blown away, he will be still feted as an immortal in South Africa if he adds a successful Lions series to his World Cup triumph. That seems to be the only thing that matters to Erasmus, never mind the human cost to the likes of Maiasashvili and Berry.

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