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The World Rugby delay that left annoyed Lions calling Joe Schmidt

By Liam Heagney

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Warren Gatland has finally revealed the timeline regarding the Lions belatedly finding out about the appointment of South African Marius Jonker as TMO for the fractious Test series versus the Springboks which will conclude this weekend after a bruising few controversial weeks for the sport. The Lions boss also admitted that he contacted Joe Schmidt, World Rugby’s director of rugby and high performance, to try and get clarification as to how the governing body didn’t have a better contingency plan in place in case something went wrong regarding the availability of any of the officials appointed for the series.   

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While referees Nic Berry, Ben O’Keeffe and Mathieu Raynal, the three-strong group appointed as the series referees and touch judges, arrived in South Africa without a hitch and have remained healthy, New Zealander Brendon Pickerill was unable to travel. However, rather than have another official from overseas on standby to fly in, World Rugby instead opted to appoint local South African official Jonker as TMO.

Gatland insisted he has no problem regarding the integrity of Jonker officiating at a Lions series involving his home nation. What he does have an issue with is how late in the day the Lions were made aware of the change, while he was also exasperated that World Rugby didn’t have a better Plan B ready to use in case of an emergency. 

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Graham Henry on how the Lions must play to win their series versus the Springboks
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Graham Henry on how the Lions must play to win their series versus the Springboks

“I don’t want to comment on his [Jonker’s] performance but we found out on the Wednesday night before the first Test,” said Gatland, shedding light on an appointment that has become quite contentious in the two weeks since then. “Our understanding was that it was going to be Brendon Pickerill and we only found out subsequently that World Rugby had known for at least a week or so that there was a possibility he wasn’t going to be travelling to South Africa. That is what raised our concerns.

“We weren’t notified about that and why there wasn’t a contingency in place. Every four years you have the World Cup and how important the World Cup is, and the next biggest thing on the World Rugby calendar is the Lions and you don’t want to be in a position where any of the match officials can be potentially criticised or questioned.

“We have already had that where these officials have been accused of being disrespected and having not made the right calls and potentially been influenced, so that has been disappointing. Everyone needs to make sure we respect the officials as much as we can. They have a difficult job. Without them, we couldn’t play the game and there is a lot at stake. I understand at times we all get frustrated about certain decisions and certain calls and sometimes you have just got to suck it up and get on with it. We have been trying to go through the process of talking to the referees Wednesday or Thursday afternoon. 

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“There are a couple of things that I want to go through, ask them on some of the calls that are made and some of the decisions, just take me through the process please and let me understand your thought process so that I understand that and can convey that message to my players. That is what you do. We don’t always agree and that is part of the thing that goes on, part of the process in terms of having that robust debate or discussion afterwards about how just as coaches and players we understand and learn but also hopefully if it’s the other way around the referee has seen our point of view or the sorts of things that we are trying to do as well.”

Lions boss Gatland added that he made representations to Schmidt after belatedly learning about Jonker’s TMO appointment. “I did, yes. I spoke to Joe Schmidt who is involved and I asked him to just please give me some clarity on the decision and just asking why plans hadn’t been put in place with not just the TMO but what happened if the referees couldn’t make it out here. “We [the Lions] had been putting in contingency plans for a number of things that if anything happened with Covid and the way things were that we were covered. Like I said, there has never been any question about the integrity of the people involved, it’s just what we questioned was the process.”

World Rugby, though, maintain that a contingency plan was in place, that teams knew it was always likely that the contingency would be non-neutral, and this had been communicated for all Test games across a challenging July window. It is also believed that the Lions were informed of Pickerill’s non-availability shortly after World Rugby were informed.

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The World Rugby delay that left annoyed Lions calling Joe Schmidt

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