Lions’ TMO outrage succeeds with South Africa losing marginal calls

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<span>Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images

The morning after the night before and it was hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the South African TMO Marius Jonker. Four marginal calls - three of which you could state a reasonable case for either way - yet he found himself being branded a “despicable coward” who “bottled it” in South Africa. Warren Gatland, meanwhile, found reason to complain about the try awarded to the Springboks because of a camera angle he had been privy to but privately you sense he will be satisfied with the outcome of his pre-match jousting.

Related: ‘Next Test will be tougher,’ warns Warren Gatland after Lions stun South Africa

There can be no doubting that the blame for the invidious position in which Jonker finds himself can be laid squarely at World Rugby’s door and there can be no way of knowing for certain whether his decision-making was affected by the Lions’s anger at his appointment. But it must be said the majority of the marginal calls went in their favour. If Willie le Roux was offside in the buildup to his try it was not by much and Hamish Watson will consider himself fortunate he did not receive a yellow card for his tackle on the South Africa full-back.

Yet Jonker and the rest of the officials made no glaring errors, no clangers which would demand their removal for the second and third Tests and - despite the Lions’ fury - that was never likely to happen. Rather, the Lions’ outrage was designed to to ensure Jonker stuck to the letter of the law and perhaps even as an attempt to force World Rugby into finding an alternative for the second and third Tests. For, there are so many marginal calls within any given Test match that leaving Jonker open to inevitable accusations of bias - however unfounded - really was not fair.

“The thing is, we found out on Wednesday that the TMO was going to be changed – it was going to be Marius Jonker,” said Gatland on Monday. “We’d had an email from World Rugby on 15 July confirming the referees but not confirming the TMOs. They’ve known since then, or well before then, that [the New Zealander] Brendon Pickerill wasn’t going to be flying in to be the TMO. We were a little bit surprised that they didn’t have any contingency plans in place.” If Gatland’s outrage can be seen as succeeding then, so too can his other avenue of attack pre-match - that the Springboks’ egos had been dented.

Hamish Watson
Hamish Watson was fortunate to escape a yellow card for a challenge on Willie le Roux. Photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

South Africa did a pretty good job of dismissing that particular barb on the eve of the match and after the first quarter - with Elliot Daly still reeling from a thunderous hit by Lukhanyo Am - it looked as if Gatland may have set himself up for an almighty fall. As he has since explained, however, the point was to ensure the Springboks stuck to their guns. That if their power game was not working, they would simply double down rather than look to catch their method of attack. The relevance of “mind games” can often be overblown in professional sport but you have to say Gatland is in the ascendancy at present and wonder whether South Africa may wish to engage themselves. Jacques Nienaber has a number of strengths but indulging in pre-match verbals does not seem to be among them so perhaps Rassie Erasmus may be a touch more visible this week.

Related: Lions’ Maro Itoje strikes first in battle with South Africa’s Faf de Klerk

“I did make a bit of a comment about denting their pride,” said Gatland. “I know what they’re like, they would have taken that as a bit of a [challenge] and come harder at us in those areas. That’s exactly what I wanted to happen. If they bring a different type of gameplan we haven’t prepared for then they might catch us by surprise. We’ve been really happy with our set piece and they haven’t got anything out of it. That’s what they’ve relied on. They relied on that in the World Cup.

“They got a couple of moments in that semi-final against Wales that got them the victory and obviously they had domination in the final as well. I think they’ll continue to work hard and try and regain that but at the moment there is definitely parity and we’re looking stronger as the game goes on. It is going to be pretty much the same – whether or not South Africa are a bit more expansive and try to play a little more rugby – that will be debatable. It is hard for them because they have a model that has been successful for them through a World Cup, they have had a lot of games - we will just wait and see.”

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