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Winning a Lions series these days seems to take more than just a herculean effort on the pitch, it is also about winning mind games off it, even on social media. And on that front, Warren Gatland has South Africa on the run.
It is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the extraordinary tweets published by the Springboks’ director of rugby Rassie Erasmus since the Lions' victory in the first Test in Cape Town on Saturday.
Erasmus’ first reaction on social media was a gracious one, congratulating the Lions for their victory and acknowledging the challenging circumstances that the Covid pandemic has presented to both squads and particularly for the tourists who were away from home.
It was a magnanimous gesture and well received. But what has followed since has not only undermined its sentiment, but it has shone a light on the mounting pressure on the Springboks camp and asks questions about who is really in charge of their team.
It is remarkable for a team that prides itself on its physicality that he should choose to post a series of tweets questioning refereeing decisions on a number of incidents involving Lions players.
Even more bizarre was his decision to retweet a suspicious account that also featured video footage from the match questioning the decisions of the match officials and the Lions players.
Back in the Lions camp in Hermanus, Gatland and his coaching team privately reacted with surprise at the outburst.
World Rugby are also not best pleased at the manner and image of their match officials being questioned on social media by the man who magnificently guided South Africa to their World Cup triumph.
Cheslin is obviously played in the air and clearly not direct into touch!!More importantly for youngsters watching this clip!!!! Please never move or touch an injured player on the ground, its reckless and dangerous! Leave this to the 🏥 🙏🏼@WorldRugby @Springboks @lionsofficial pic.twitter.com/lEcp5L4PBf
— Rassie Erasmus (@RassieRugby) July 26, 2021
Given this is rugby union’s moment despite the competition with first the Euros and now the Olympics to rival for centre stage in the nation’s sporting calendar, it looks petty. And desperate.
But the message the Lions will take is that the Springboks are looking for distractions for the manner of their second half collapse on Saturday from a position of utter dominance.
Erasmus is highly regarded as a coach of intelligence, capable of espousing high-brow rugby intelligence but also happy to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. It could be interpreted that his interventions since Saturday are all about distracting from the mistakes of his own players and taking the pressure and heat off them from the South African media.
And yet it is because of that reputation that Gatland must know that he has the Springboks’ camp exactly where he wants them. For all Erasmus’ achievements, Gatland is peerless when it comes to dominating the mind games tussles.
He went on the front foot last week when it seeped out of the Lions camp that they were outraged at the decision for the South African Marius Jonker to be appointed as the television match official for the series because of the Covid challenges.
The sense here is that the pressure from the Lions tipped the scales in their favour over a number of key decisions that were reviewed by Jonker on Saturday. The reaction in South Africa is that any perception that his appointment might have favoured the home side has been undermined by the pressure exerted by the noises from the Lions camp.
Gatland had already fired the first shots by questioning Erasmus’ role as a ‘water boy’ during matches, which is allowed because technically he is not the head coach of the team but is the director of rugby. One wonders what Jacques Nienaber, who is the head coach, makes of it all. Erasmus’ reaction since Saturday underscores the perception there is only one man in charge.
There is no doubt in the Lions camp. Gatland, who does not have a Twitter account, and allegedly would struggle to know much about the workings of social media, has instead used traditional media to highlight the advantages of his team.
There is a growing sense that the Lions have not yet fired their best shot. It is a message that should serve as a warning for the Springboks. Gatland already highlighted before the game and in its aftermath that he believed the key to winning this series was in matching the Springboks’ physicality in their set piece and then responding with a game plan that has an extra attacking edge.
The Lions were disappointed with their game management and discipline in the first half and yet still managed to overturn a 12-3 deficit as their own set-piece took control. Gatland’s comments are not so much about sending messages to his own players but more about turning the screw on the Springboks.
If he wants them to feel like they have nowhere else to turn, Erasmus’ responses have only played into the hands of the Lions.
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