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In a slightly different context, people talk about class being permanent. It is not a word, though, that attaches itself to rugby coaches who moan and bitch when things fail to go their way. The three key rules every parent should teach their sporting offspring remain timeless and simple: win or lose with grace, respect your opponent and try to set a decent example to others.
Of course the pressure of a British & Irish Lions series is intense. Of course emotions will overflow occasionally. Rarely, though, has a World Cup-winning coach been at greater risk of tossing away so much global goodwill in a few days than South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. You do not have to be an expert on the subject of Twitter accounts to wonder if conquering the world in 2019 has maybe gone to somebody’s head.
No one doubts for a second that Erasmus is a man of multiple talents. He has played for and coached the Springboks and, as the fascinating Chasing the Sun documentary showed, is a charismatic and smart individual. So far during this Lions series, sadly, he has been coming across as a complete prat, regardless of which hemisphere you happen to hail from.
First we have had all that tiresome “waterboy” stuff. Erasmus is not the first coach to run on to the pitch looking as if he come straight from a customer service call centre, but he has taken it upon himself to become the poster boy for earpiece wearers everywhere. It is not a great look: the erstwhile head coach, who has now supposedly handed the reins to his long-time lieutenant Jacques Nienaber, rushing on to tell the players what they almost certainly already know. As Warren Gatland wryly pointed out after the South Africa A game, he could at least have taken out some water with him.
There is nothing technically illegal about it, although World Rugby would be doing the game an immense favour if they banned anyone with a microphone (bar the referee, the medics and the post-match interviewers) from entering the field of play during a game. Nor is it against the letter of the law for anyone, paid employee of SA Rugby or not, to go online and highlight potential officiating mistakes via social media. What it is not is remotely classy.
“Cheslin is obviously played in the air and clearly not direct into touch!!’ Erasmus tweeted on Monday, also criticising Mako Vunipola for hoisting the aforementioned Cheslin Kolbe to his feet after a heavy collision in the second-half of Saturday’s first Test. “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.”
Ultimately it does not really matter who runs the account purported to belong to Jaco Johan, whom Erasmus has been so enthusiastically retweeting to flag up alleged Lions misdeeds. Of greater relevance is his lack of any obvious respect or empathy for the hard-pressed match officials whose “mistakes” are being highlighted. It is one thing for pumped-up coaches to let off steam immediately after a game, which may later see them fined or banned from the touchline. It is quite another to be deliberately undermining referees – publicly in mid-series – by provoking thousands of salivating internet trolls on them.
Rugby still loves to pride itself on its supposed innate integrity: calling the referee ‘Sir’, for example, shortly before trying to gouge an opponent’s eyeball. In Erasmus’s case, could it be that his manic desire to win this series is clouding his hard-nosed judgement? “The most ruthless man I’ve ever met and also the most confident,” was how one of his former Munster players, Stephen Fitzgerald, described him to the42.ie earlier this month. An unnamed Irish international in the same Munster team also graphically recalls the controlling aura – “He frightened the shite out of us, simple as
that” – that surrounded Erasmus during his 17-month spell in Limerick.
By the same token, everyone in Munster was hugely impressed by how sensitively Erasmus dealt with the shocking death of the province’s local hero Anthony Foley at the age of just 42. When he addressed his Springbok side in Japan prior to their World Cup final against England in 2019, his inspirational words spelling out what the team’s success could do for their country were also genuinely impactful.
So why the seemingly infantile behaviour now? Those who know the 48-year-old best all say he is meticulous and organised: having already sought to highlight Owen Farrell’s tackle technique, this latest furore is no coincidence. Maybe, in addition to hoping to influence future refereeing calls, there is an element of trying to draw some fire away from Nienaber. Either way, the Lions reckon Erasmus is in danger of shooting himself in the foot by choosing not to air any legitimate concerns he may have through official channels.
It will not unduly bother Gatland as he puts the finishing touches to his second Test selection. A tweaked starting midfield feels probable and Taulupe Faletau and Josh Adams may enter the No 8 and wing conversations respectively but, with the Lions 1-0 up in the seres, the pressure is weighing heaviest on the Springboks. Erasmus might be better off focusing on fixing his own side’s issues and switching off his phone for a few days.