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RUGBYPASS+ Rassie Erasmus' Lions meltdown isn't entirely unfounded

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Rassie Erasmus' Lions meltdown isn't entirely unfounded

As much as there were people appalled in New Zealand that Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus would create and post an hour-long video berating the officials who had control of the first test in the British and Irish Lions series, there was also an element of empathy for his rant.

The Kiwis learnt for themselves in 2017 that officiating can take a dramatic and strange twist when the Lions are involved. 

Just as Erasmus was perplexed and outraged by what he saw as inconsistent and at times unexplainable officiating in the first test loss for the Springboks, New Zealanders felt much the same way at the end of their drawn series against the Lions in 2017.

Not much of what happened in 2017 made sense at the time, or makes sense now. And it wasn’t just the madly weird decision at the end of the third test that was troublesome.

Everyone remembers that crazy moment in the last few minutes when the All Blacks were awarded a kickable penalty with the score tied at 15-all, only for referee Romain Poite to be persuaded, by his assistant, Joel Garces, to downgrade it to a scrum.

Kieran Read remonstrates with Roman Poite during the final Lions test in 2017. (Photos by Getty Images)

It was a farce in every way, process and outcome, and still rankles with former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen to this day. 

It was a decision that obviously didn’t sit too well with Poite either because he finally spoke about on the eve of this Lions tour, saying to RugbyPass: “Many people called me after the game and told me: ‘That was a mistake, but it was justice, the right decision to make’ (for the series to be drawn).

“Even the World Rugby staff management gave me this call. But I said that I am paid to make a big decision at the end of the game. That was my concern.

“I can promise you when I went back to the changing room, I destroyed everything, because I was angry against me. That tour was a human story with Jerome Garces, Jaco Peyper and many people, as in 2013 with Craig Joubert and Chris Pollock [the referees who took charge of the other Tests]. I felt the refereeing in this tour, 2017, was great. And what will we remember? Just the last decision of the tour.”

The thing was, however, that the last decision of the tour wasn’t an isolated act by the officials. The series was in fact dominated by decisions that remain hard to understand and are not dissimilar to what Erasmus feels the Boks experienced in Cape Town.

In the second test of 2017 Sonny Bill Williams was rightfully sent off for a clumsy and heavy high hit on Anthony Watson. The All Blacks accepted that one fair and square, but what didn’t sit well with them was that Lions flanker Sean O’Brien produced a swinging arm tackle on Waisake Naholo after 60 minutes.

The video evidence appeared irrefutable – it was a swinging arm direct to the head with no mitigating circumstances. O’Brien played while Naholo didn’t due to concerns about his head.

It required Naholo to leave the field. The incident was picked up by the cameras, looked clear cut and yet nothing was done about it at the time.

After the game, the incident was cited because the commissioner, Scott Nowland, said it met the threshold for a red card. Yet, after a nearly four-hour judicial review, O’Brien escaped any sanction and was told he was free to play the following week.

The video evidence appeared irrefutable – it was a swinging arm direct to the head with no mitigating circumstances. O’Brien played while Naholo didn’t due to concerns about his head.

The only comment to come out of the review was via NZ Rugby, who told reporters when they asked: “Having conducted a detailed review of all the evidence available, including all video footage and additional evidence from the player and submissions from his legal representative Max Duthie, the independent judicial committee… dismissed the citing complaint.”

Sean O’Brien was a key performer for the Lions in 2017 but some thought he was lucky to be available for selection for the third test. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In that same game, Mako Vunipola was yellow-carded for a shoulder charge on Beauden Barrett. The Lions prop was trying to clean out Barrett from a ruck, but again, the video evidence seemed to suggest contact was with Barrett’s head and that it was targeted and deliberate.

Adding insult to injury for the All Blacks was the source of the last penalty that the Lions won late in the game to ease themselves to the 24-21 victory. 

It came after Lions prop Kyle Sinckler appeared to jump into Charlie Faumuina. Sinckler was taking a looping pass and seemed to time it perfectly to be in the air to draw the penalty. Faumuina, at 130kg, was clearly committed to the tackle and couldn’t get out of the way and so there was some anger on the part of the All Blacks that Sinckler received the penalty with a giant grin and high fives all around as if he had cynically played for it.

That there was a fight between the Sinckler and a few All Blacks in the tunnel after the game indicated the sense of grievance that was being felt.

A grievance that was exacerbated the following week when the Lions were able to draw the series level with what was perceived to be yet another cynical ploy – they won a penalty to draw the scores level late in the game when halfback Gareth Davies threw the ball at Wyatt Crockett at the back of a ruck.

It’s predictable comments from Gatland, isn’t it? Two weeks ago we cheated in the scrums and last week it was blocking and now he’s saying this.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen following the second test agains the Lions in 2017

The All Blacks prop was on the wrong side but not interfering with play. He had also been knocked out so couldn’t move. The Lions halfback, though, tried his luck and was rewarded when Poite said Crockett prevented the pass from being made.

All of these decisions formed a picture, as did the non-sanctioning of coach Warren Gatland when he said after the first test loss that the All Blacks had set out with a plan to deliberately injure Conor Murray by diving at his standing leg whenever he box kicked.

“It’s predictable comments from Gatland, isn’t it? Two weeks ago we cheated in the scrums and last week it was blocking and now he’s saying this,” said Hansen in response.

“It’s really, really disappointing to hear it because what he’s implying is we’re intentionally going out to injure somebody.

“That’s not the case. We’ve never been like that and as a New Zealander I’d expect him to know the New Zealand psyche that it’s not about intentionally trying to hurt anybody, it’s about playing hard and fair.”

Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland enjoyed a frosty relationship during the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Erasmus has clearly opened himself up to be sanctioned by World Rugby and his 26-plus claims of refereeing inconsistency or incompetency from the first test be entirely dismissed because he has chosen to make them public through social media.

That he chose to not follow protocol or bring up his complaints through the appropriate channels, does not mean, however, they are not valid.

Anyone who made it through his hour-long presentation would have found it hard to have refuted anything he brought up. His process in making his thoughts public was flawed but not his research or arguments.

World Rugby will no doubt choose to focus their ire on Erasmus and his lack of respect for the systems in place to make complaints, but there was certainly one significant issue he brought up that the ruling body simply cannot ignore.

Of all the injustices raised by Erasmus the one that stood out the most was his claim that the officials treated the respective captains differently.

That claim is backed up by the video evidence presented which clearly shows Kolisi being shooed away while the officials engage with Jones. The Lions captain was able to inquire about a knock-on in the build-up to a Springboks try that was not given while Kolisi wanted to draw their attention to foul play.

“It’s comical, the way the respect of the assistant referees and the refs is different between the Lions and South Africa,” said Erasmus.

“When Siya [Kolisi] spoke to the referee and when Alun Wyn spoke to the referee, I felt there was a vast difference between who he was taking serious and who he wasn’t taking serious.”

That claim is backed up by the video evidence presented which clearly shows Kolisi being shooed away while the officials engage with Jones. The Lions captain was able to inquire about a knock-on in the build-up to a Springboks try that was not given while Kolisi wanted to draw their attention to foul play.

Erasmus makes the point that this different treatment alludes to a pre-conceived mindset being held by the officials and it also conjures memories of 2017 when Lions captain Sam Warburton was able to persuade Poite to consult with TMO George Ayoub about the last-minute offside infringement.

There was no jurisdiction for the TMO to get involved as it was outside his remit, but Warburton had a different relationship with Poite to the one between the referee and All Blacks captain Kieran Read.

Rassie Erasmus felt Springboks captain Siya Kolisi wasn’t treated fairly relative to Lions captain Alyn Wyn Jones. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

When Read contested the decision to overturn the penalty, he rightly told Poite that there is no such thing as accidental offside, but again the French official waved him away.

“I’m not saying the referee was a cheat at all, I’m saying we just wanted clarity on a Sunday night and didn’t get it until Tuesday and, to be honest, I am not very convinced with the clarity we got from Nic Berry in this match,” explained Erasmus.

“It should be fair. Let the Springboks and the Lions have an equal chance on the field when it comes to laws, respect, the way players get treated, what is said pre-match coaches meeting with the referees, how they give feedback post that and how things get said in the media.”

The Lions are a loved and valued part of the rugby calendar, but they won’t be if they continue to win, or are perceived to be able to win, favourable treatment from referees.

Erasmus was wrong to be so public, but he wasn’t wrong to be concerned by what he saw.

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