Phoney war heats up as Rassie Erasmus queries Owen Farrell's tackling technique

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Rassie Erasmus, (R) the South Africa Springbok head coach,signals to the Lions head coach, Warren Gatland prior to the match between South Africa A and the British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on July 14, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. - GETTY IMAGES
Rassie Erasmus, (R) the South Africa Springbok head coach,signals to the Lions head coach, Warren Gatland prior to the match between South Africa A and the British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on July 14, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. - GETTY IMAGES

Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus hit back at Warren Gatland on Friday by provocatively highlighting Owen Farrell’s tackling technique on his social media account.

Just eight days out from the Test series, Erasmus posted two video clips on his personal Twitter account of Farrell tackles in the Lions’ 17-13 defeat to South Africa ‘A’ on Wednesday. That came in response to Gatland’s comments calling for consistency around the high tackle law. On Thursday, the Lions head coach had questioned why scrum-half Faf de Klerk had only received a yellow card after apparently making contact with the head of Lions flanker Josh Navidi.

“Someone was watching a different picture to me, I thought it looked reckless to me,” said Gatland, who had also mocked Erasmus’ role as a water boy. “No arms and he’s hit the arm first and then the shoulder, but there’s definitely head-on-head contact.

“We’ve got a meeting with the referees tomorrow just to get a bit of clarity on that. What we want is clarity so that we get complete consistency. The citing commissary looks at those things. It’ll be interesting to see what the referees come back with.”

If that was bait then Erasmus bit hard. In response to a newspaper article quoting that last sentence, Erasmus posted a clip of Farrell leading with his shoulder in a tackle on South Africa No 8 Jasper Wiese with the comment, “While you at it please get clarity on this also !! [red card], [yellow card], penalty or play on? We have to 100% sure and aligned.” The video was paused at the point of contact to emphasise his message.

Erasmus followed that up with a second video, this time of Farrell rag-dolling De Klerk after play had gone dead. The clip even circled Farrell’s arm coming around De Klerk’s neck and also came with another loaded comment. “If there is time maybe also get absolute clarity and alignment on this one please, I know its way after the whistle, but lets just align and get clarity to be sure.”

This is not first time that Erasmus has called out Farrell’s penchant for high tackles. In November 2018, Farrell escaped punishment for a shoulder led tackle on André Esterhuizen in England’s 12-11 victory against the Springboks. The following week the Springboks posted a video of Erasmus mockingly teaching his players to make neck-high tackles in training.

Erasmus had already provoked the Lions hierarchy by implying they were risking the players’ safety by facing the Stormers on Saturday rather than a repeat fixture against South Africa 'A'. The barbs in both directions will only add to the heat of the three-match Test series that starts on July 24 in Cape Town. The second two Tests are scheduled to be staged in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium but Telegraph Sport understands they will remain in Cape Town with significant unrest remaining around South Africa’s largest city.

Saturday’s match against the Stormers represents “the last chance for players to put their hands up” according to attack coach Gregor Townsend. If Gatland is to believed, 60-70 per cent of the Test places are “fluid” and a final impression could tilt the balance. “Those freshest things in a coaches mind obviously have an influence, so how well the players perform tomorrow will add to what they've already done on tour,” Townsend said. “It's an opportunity for people to grab.”

It is particularly significant for second row Jones, who is on the bench, full back Stuart Hogg and centre Robbie Henshaw, three players who for various reasons – dislocated shoulder, Covid close contact and hamstring injury – have only played one match on the tour so far. While Townsend says that players will be judged on the “catalogue” of what they have done on the tour, he made clear all three will have the opportunity to earn a Test shirt.

“Absolutely,” Townsend said. “We want to give players the opportunity to show where they are, physically, but also where they are in terms of their form. So it’s now up to them to grab it.”

Townsend has only just returned to the Lions camp after spending a week isolating along with Hogg as close contacts of a Covid positive case. During the time in which he was confined to his hotel room, Townsend spent hours combing over past Springbok performances going back to 2018. He added: “That experience I had, spending a bit more time watching South Africa and in particular the game we played against their shadow team on Wednesday, those are going to be helpful for us, knowing our enemy, knowing what we can expect in certain situations.”

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