Hitting The Target: Coaches must go easy on officials to let final Lions Test be a spectacle

Referee Ben O’Keefe makes his point to South African captain Siya Kolisi and Lions skipper Alun Wyn Jones during last Saturday’s fractious second Test. Picture by Press Association  
Seamus Maloney

After the week that went before, it was no surprise that the second Test between the British and Irish Lions and South Africa went the way it did.

It was probably appropriate too. A sport that prides itself on respect for officials – “You’ve taken his head clean off his shoulders and it’s still rolling across the pitch, it’s a red card.” “Yes, sir, thank you.” – gave a masterclass in unedifying, disingenuous, self-serving whining.

South Africa were the villains last week, with the Lions management, still basking in the glow of victory from the opening Test of the series, able to sit back and watch the car crash unfold.

For more than an hour South African director of rugby Rassie Erasmus tried to appear level-headed and statesman-like as he took aim at the tourists’ “moaning” about officials. To fill his hour he needed to get into the weeds and it wasn’t just huge decisions like yellow cards and disallowed tries. Simple penalties, or the lack of them, were pored over. There was slow motion footage, graphics, subtitles and a stopwatch tracking how much time the Lions were given to play advantage. Twenty-six clips to show why referee Nic Berry and his fellow officials didn’t know what they were doing.

As he rounded things off, it was difficult to not to think of Fr Ted Crilly’s acceptance speech when he won the Golden Cleric award.

“And now, we move on to liars…”

It was, and remains, an astonishing thing for someone in Erasmus’ position to put into the public domain. The clips used, graphics and all, were identical to some highlighted by an anonymous Twitter account that had criticised the officials – an anonymous Twitter account Erasmus (below) engaged and agreed with after the first Test defeat.

But who among us hasn’t struck up a conversation with our own social media burner account to get our point across on Twitter?

The video was rightly ridiculed and has landed Erasmus and South Africa Rugby in a misconduct hearing, but it was just the most bizarre contribution to a general grubbiness that has ratcheted up since the Lions played a South Africa A side that was filled with first choice Springboks robbed of warm-up opportunities due to Covid call-offs.

Part of the South African defence to the criticism dumped on their heads after Erasmus’ video was a rendition of “What about themmuns!” so pitch perfect that the entire Springbok coaching team can expect a standing invitation to the Nolan Show any day now.

While two wrongs don’t make a right there was something in the Springbok argument.

Warren Gatland had stepped well over the line in questioning the appointment of Marius Jonker as TMO for the Test series, or rather, letting it known he was “furious” a South African would be overseeing the TV replay officiating.

Assistant Robin McBryde was the one who went out in public and had a go. World Rugby had shown a “lack of foresight” in not having a neutral contingency plan after the original TMO, New Zealander Brendon Pickerill, couldn’t travel due to coronavirus restrictions.

Whatever way it was framed, Jonker’s integrity was being questioned, and set against the backdrop of being lucky to be playing the series at all given what Covid has done to the sporting world – and the real world – the Lions’ stance came across as even more wrong-headed.

Both sides have let themselves down by engaging in the sort of pre-match grenade lobbing in the direction of referees that England coach Eddie Jones is so fond of. It’s part of what makes him so endearing.

But even though the World Rugby statement announcing Erasmus would be hauled over the coals also noted the Lions management really should mind their manners as well, is it likely given the tourists came out on the right side of a number of big TMO decisions in their successful first Test?

Similarly, while the Lions were by no means innocent parties in the second Test – Duhan van der Merwe did very well not to be sent off – the Springboks benefitted enormously from the biggest decisions.

Cheslin Kolbe should have been red-carded for taking out Conor Murray in the air and Faf de Klerk probably should have followed for his clothesline on the Irish

If Robbie Henshaw’s try wasn’t given, which it wasn’t, it was difficult to see why Lukhanyo Am’s was. If Warren Gatland wanted to construct a supercut of grievances he’d have plenty of material.

He’d certainly have far more material than any poor editor charged with coming up with a highlights package, because the game itself was a horror show.

It wasn’t “one for the purists” or “fascinating” or “an arm wrestle”. Matches like that can be compelling, especially between two teams of quality players rather than competing sides of equal mediocrity.

The constant box-kicking from the Springboks and the Lions’ inability to deal with it combined with a general lack of imagination from the tourists to lead the game down a particular road.

But it was also turgid, spiteful, and made to feel all the grimmer by being played in an empty stadium. If it had been in the car park it wouldn’t have looked out of place.

But given the way the stage was set, why would you expect the players on the stage to rise above things?

It took just 30 seconds short of Rassie Erasmus’ 62-and-a-half-minute performance to get the first half played. The second half lasted nearly as long. Both felt like about a fortnight.

The pressure piled onto the officials before the game contributed hugely to this. Neither the Lions nor the Springboks will care how they win, just that they do. The viewing public can only hope that Saturday’s deciding Lions Test – one of the great occasions in sport – will be allowed the chance to be something to relish and remember.

The players can only do so much to make that happen. The officials need to play their part as well – and the coaches need to let them.

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