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The very best coaches in the world love to have control over everything. We see it with Eddie Jones and England all the time and when those coaches feel like they lose control, they act. Rassie Erasmus evidently feels like control has been lost, that Warren Gatland has seized the initiative and that he has had to respond. This week, just as he wants his players to, he has gone on the front foot. And how.
I almost see it as an acknowledgment that the Lions have outplayed South Africa in the press and Rassie has been desperate to change that. Clearly he perceives there to have been a lack of respect shown towards his players by last week’s officials. He sees the British & Irish Lions as being treated like royalty compared to the Springboks and he has taken unprecedented action in an attempt to put that right. He repeatedly used the word “respect” but I’m not sure you gain any more respect by coming out in the media, slamming referees and putting pressure on them. Sometimes you reap what you sow.
Addressing his hour-long monologue, he has almost certainly brought the game into disrepute – players can be sanctioned for a lot less – and I fully expect World Rugby to throw the book at Rassie because this kind of thing cannot be allowed to happen again. But having said that, Rassie will not care in the slightest if he achieves his goal.
For Rassie, all that matters is winning and if he can exert influence in any way possible, he will. He will be more than happy to take a fine or a ban if he thinks he can put pressure on the referee and his assistants this weekend – that will be a case of job done. It is a last roll of the dice for Rassie because losing a series 2-0 to the Lions is unthinkable as far as he is concerned.
For his players, of course they’ll be scratching their heads and it will be a bit of a distraction because they’ll be constantly asked about it. But Rassie will have warned them and he has credit in the bank after how he transformed the Springboks into a World Cup-winning team. Speaking to people who have been involved in the South Africa setup in the last couple of years, Rassie has a great emotional connection with his players and they must have faith in his methods this week and realise that Rassie’s ploy has been to create a media frenzy.
This wasn’t just a series of complaints about Nic Berry’s performance – for World Rugby’s eyes only, it was an attempt to ensure everyone is talking about refereeing decisions and to test the mettle of Ben O’Keeffe, who takes charge on Saturday. To that end, Rassie has achieved his goal.
For the record I thought Berry made some peculiar decisions. I cannot work out how Robbie Henshaw’s knock-on to Duhan van der Merwe wasn’t a penalty and I was extremely surprised that Willie le Roux’s try was not given. But this is the first time we have ever seen such a public autopsy of so many decisions.
I would love to see an hour-long video of Erasmus analysing the performance of his coaches and his players. Because Berry did not decide to switch the South Africa front row at half-time and he certainly wasn’t dropping high balls in the backfield. In addition, the South African bomb squad failed to live up its billing and the Springboks’ discipline was a problem, which allowed the Lions to take control.
Ultimately we have one of the most technical sports in the world. There are multiple bodies flying around at great speed, there are, on average, around 300 rucks per match and at the vast majority of those you could make a case for three or four different reasons to award a different decision. It all comes down to interpretation. The question now is how does O’Keeffe referee this game now because he has a nigh-on impossible job.
The best refereeing performances are those which you don’t really pick up on but there is absolutely no way that O’Keeffe and his officials will not be scrutinised at every turn. If he gets decisions wrong in South Africa’s favour then Erasmus’s video will be seen to have worked. Vice versa and the perception will be the opposite but one thing is for sure, O’Keeffe, his assistants and TMO Marius Jonker cannot live in the shadows on Saturday and it’s such a shame that in the biggest Test of the year, after all the difficulties getting to this point, with the series on the line, all we are talking about is referees.
It is so easy to blame referees and officials because they are a faceless body and as I say, I really wasn’t that impressed with Berry’s performance. Looking at the bigger picture, there is definitely scope to use technology more effectively and efficiently to help referees and there are innovations such as using two referees, one in each half of the pitch. Ultimately, however, we have to make sure that hour-long videos dissecting each and every decision that goes against your team cannot become a regular occurrence and accordingly World Rugby must show a firm hand.