TThe springboks need a new water carrier for Saturday’s game in Twickenham. The tasks include setting up the defense, recognizing weak points in the opposing line and passing on important information from the trainer box. Oh, and hydrate the players on the field.
Incumbent Rassie Erasmus, who works as the rugby director of South African rugby in the moonlight, has been banned from all rugby activities for two months and suspended from all match day activities until September next year. His punishment, imposed by World Rugby for his 62-minute video of extensively criticizing Referee Nic Berry’s performance after the British & Irish Lions Tour’s first test, also includes a warning “regarding his future conduct”. Erasmus has been instructed to apologize to the relevant match officials, as has SA Rugby, which is now fined £ 20,000.
Both Erasmus and SA Rugby will appeal. Of course they will. This saga would never end quietly, no matter what judgment the governing body of the world made. More interesting is how this changes the cultural landscape of South African rugby and its position abroad.
Several newspapers and websites – including this one – suggested that Erasmus’ reputation has been “shredded” and “in tatters”. That may be true in other countries, but it is certainly not the case in South Africa. If anything, it improved his status and made him some sort of martyr, a righteous fighter who knew the risks of defying those who had their hands on the levers of power, and did it anyway. According to his defenders, Erasmus is not a mad maniac, but a brave knight who storms into dragon fire to preserve the dignity of his people.
South African rugby fans are fickle but loyal. You can also be unsure at times. This is a broader societal problem in a former colony that is economically the most unequal in the world, where honest politicians are as rare as props, where a full day without a power cut is considered a luxury, and where crime statistics – especially against women – are astounding and numbing at the same time. The springboks stand out. This team is currently the best asset in the country. And an attack on one is an attack on all.
After winning the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019, Siya Kolisi’s squad became the favorites of the game. A Laureus World Sports Award for Team of the Year crowned a remarkable journey that was moved to tears in a documentary co-produced by Erasmus. The most racially diverse Springbok outfit included players who rose out of poverty. This was more than a team, it was an icon that dwarfed even the 1995 heroes.
Then Covid struck. Since South Africa was placed under strict bans, the springboks were denied their year-long victory parade. As the Six Nations carried on in empty stadiums and their rivals in the southern hemisphere played on without them, the glory of their triumph faded.
They joined the Lions tour raw and eager to assert their champion status. That this would be done against a united force from the British Isles is significant. The home nations have long plundered South African talent and some hangovers from the days of the empire have not yet receded. That Erasmus is Afrikaans is not lost in the story.
The mood was already sour when Erasmus posted / leaked / accidentally hit the “send” button on his video. Lions coach Warren Gatland had questioned a referee’s decision in a press conference, and hostilities between journalists, who sometimes acted as screaming cheerleaders, added filthy intrigue to a competition that has been stripped of fans due to the pandemic.
But, and it should be obvious regardless of your loyalty, Erasmus went too far. World Rugby’s 80-page report revealed that it threatened Berry that if he wasn’t asked to meet in person, he would release the critical footage. However the video was released, Erasmus seemed to be carrying out this threat.
“One of the points of the respondents is that the reviewers have to be able to accept feedback,” says the judgment. “That is a fair observation. However, there is a difference between feedback and abuse. “
This judgment puts power back in the hands of the evaluators, but it will not resolve questions about the content of the Erasmus video. A bad decision by a referee can cost a coach his job. This already delicate relationship has been damaged.
Berry’s statement humanized the affair: “The whole situation was an extremely difficult time for my family and me.
Position has been taken, opinions on both sides of the chasm have hardened, and a team that until recently was a bastion of hope around the world has now become a lightning rod for a toxic chapter in rugby history.
None of this will have much of an impact on Saturday’s game against England, but like the rejection of the World Rugby Awards this week, it could add extra motivation to the players. Those 80 minutes will probably be as intense as any game between the Springbok and the Red Rose. After that the circus continues.