Rassie Erasmus has taken a swipe at the British & Irish Lions for compromising the “integrity of the game” by making their anger known at the appointment of the South African TMO Marius Jonker. In what appeared to be a thinly veiled return of fire, Erasmus then insisted he would never draw attention to the fact that Warren Gatland and Saturday’s referee Ben O’Keeffe are both New Zealanders.
In a remarkable press conference, Erasmus also denied that he was behind the Twitter account “Jaco Johan”, voiced his frustrations with World Rugby, again criticised Mako Vunipola for manhandling Cheslin Kolbe and delivered a withering putdown of Sir Clive Woodward. For, what at first felt like South Africa’s director of rugby facing the music swiftly turned into the Rassie Erasmus Show.
Erasmus managed to make all of the above points without losing his cool, without raising his voice and without much contrition for his social media outbursts – all the while insisting that he just “carries a bit of water” these days. Erasmus has come in for criticism of late but he is nothing if not entertaining. Gatland, for his part, brushed off Erasmus’s antics as a “sideshow”, and calmly outlined his decision to make three changes to his side, bringing in Conor Murray at scrum-half, Chris Harris at outside-centre and Vunipola at tighthead. Evidently he relished the role reversal this week but it must be said that for a Lions tour that has at times threatened to buckle under the weight of the pandemic, these two deserve credit for providing it with colour.
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Addressing Jonker’s role, Erasmus explained how he too was “baffled” by World Rugby’s decision to appoint his compatriot and “close, close friend” but explained how it was “weird” to see his integrity questioned. “When Warren talked last week about Marius Jonker – Warren is a great guy, I can tell you straight up, I’ve always enjoyed him and he’s a great man - but it was weird for me that people would question Marius’s integrity,” said Erasmus. “It was almost like … say we say this weekend Ben O’Keeffe is a New Zealander and Warren is also a New Zealander … we will never say that. It wouldn’t sit well, the integrity of the game would be questioned and we would never do that.
“I did feel that when [Marius] was TMOing for a South African team that didn’t sit well for me. I don’t know if World Rugby should interfere, but if Ben O’Keeffe makes the wrong decisions on Saturday you wouldn’t hear us saying it is because he is New Zealand and Warren Gatland is New Zealand. I think one should try and stay away from those things, I’ve made those mistakes many times, I’ve talked too much about the referees too many times.”
Amid a few classic one-liners - “… but we won’t be loud in the media” – Erasmus also addressed his recent activity on social media. He said he was not Jaco Johan – “I’m Johan Erasmus” – but that he was a “funny guy” and a big supporter of the Springboks. To recap, the Jaco Johan account has been posting videos on decisions that went against South Africa and retweeted by Erasmus. He also appeared to justify taking to social media because World Rugby had been so slow to come back with clarity on some decisions and was never more at home than when taking the moral high ground over the manner in which Vunipola dragged Kolbe up from the floor.
“I thought the way Cheslin was picked off the ground could have been a serious injury,” added Erasmus. “We teach our primary school children at any level that you leave a player as he is because it is dangerous. We wouldn’t want our Springbok players, if a Lions players was on his back, to go and pick him up. I thought that was an important one to get out there.”
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Erasmus arguably saved his best for Woodward. His fellow World Cup winning coach has questioned why Erasmus does not step back from the limelight and allow Jacques Nienaber – now head coach but assistant during the World Cup – to take charge. It was a point that seemed valid given Nienaber had just announced South Africa’s team for Saturday with Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe and Jasper Wiese all coming into the side only for Erasmus to steal the limelight.
“I don’t think ‘Sir’ is so important in South Africa as it is in England but myself and Jacques are great mates,” said Erasmus. “I’m the water carrier at this stage so he’s higher than me in the rank. We’ve always worked together since 1990, if you look at that match on Saturday, in minute 71 we almost scored a try and then people would say our relationship is working really well so I wouldn’t listen too much to Sir Clive Woodward, he doesn’t really matter to me.”
Perhaps the most telling part of the press conference came when Erasmus admitted that last week – in the face of some pre-match grenades from the Lions – the Springboks kept their counsel and after going 1-0 down in the series it was time for something different. Erasmus probably felt like he had nothing to lose – time will tell if anything has been gained.