Revisit the week of the Rassie Erasmus rant and it is still striking that even if South Africa’s director of rugby had chosen to bite his lip rather than document his hour-long diatribe now synonymous with the Springboks’ series win, it would still go down as one of the most bizarre periods in rugby union’s turbulent year.
The video emerged on the Thursday, by which stage Erasmus had already called out Mako Vunipola on Twitter for man-handling Cheslin Kolbe and held an extraordinary press conference in which he denied he was behind an account by the name of Jaco Johan, which flagged a number of perceived injustices and with which he was regularly engaging and agreeing.
For context, Erasmus felt that the British & Irish Lions had influenced the officials in the first Test – which they won 22-17 – by making it known that they were unimpressed with the appointment of the South African Marius Jonker as TMO. Even before that the trash-talking had started – Warren Gatland felt Faf de Klerk should have been given a red card in South Africa A’s victory over the tourists so Erasmus countered by picking at the low-hanging fruit: Owen Farrell’s tackle technique. Throw in Erasmus’s insistence on acting as South Africa’s water carrier and Gatland’s willingness to question it and it’s fair to say the mix was already combustible.
It was in the week of the second Test that Erasmus grew desperate. During the build-up to the first Test he and South Africa’s head coach, Jacques Nienaber, had largely kept their counsel, but following defeat they seemingly reached the conclusion that it hadn’t worked and so they had to go on the offensive. If Erasmus’ press conference was as entertaining as it was extraordinary – “No, I’m actually not Jaco Johan, I’m Johan Erasmus … He’s a very big supporter, a really funny guy and I quite enjoy the things that he does” – he crossed the line from mischief to malice with the video.
Erasmus highlighted 26 incidents in which he believed the referee, Nic Berry, and his team of assistants were at fault and suggested it was not just out of incompetence, referencing how he felt the Lions captain, Alun Wyn Jones, and his counterpart, Siya Kolisi – South Africa’s first ever black captain – were afforded different treatment. He lamented the officials’ refusal to give him feedback on demand and he even dared World Rugby to ban him for his decision to speak out. “If this means we are going to get a fine, I will step away from the management team,” he said.
To dissect a referee’s performance like that – and for it to enter into the public domain – was egregious and it was to World Rugby’s shame that his punishment was not meted out for a further four months. The governing body’s lengthy verdict detailed the human toll Erasmus’ behaviour had on Berry, and brought with it some equally extraordinary revelations. Chiefly that Erasmus was found guilty of threatening Berry with the video’s publication and that in among the chaos of the week in question, the Australian referee took the time to answer each and every point Erasmus had by email, only to receive a one-world reply: thank you.
Erasmus’ subsequent behaviour on social media has wavered between unashamed and unhinged – it also took a further week after the verdict of his hearing for him to finally apologise – but he is clearly emboldened, because to many South African supporters it is he who has been wronged. Erasmus, in his followers’ eyes, is unimpeachable, crusading against myriad injustices, a truth-teller bold enough to hold the powers-that-be to account. That, however, is to miss the point. Erasmus’ claims may have merit but considering his methods in airing them, the only suitable course of action for World Rugby to take was to promptly throw the book at him. And by that measure, it failed.
World Rugby is a governing body that prioritises procedure over public perception and the short-term result was that Erasmus remained in position for the second and third Tests, and the first half of the former ended up being just as long as his video tirade, so paralysed by fear were the officials. It did not single-handedly ruin a series which arguably should not have been taking place at all – the Rugby Football Union, for one, has since privately acknowledged it should, in hindsight, have been a “home” series for the Lions as had been explored but ultimately rejected – but it hardly helped. And while Erasmus’ behaviour that week brought some much-needed colour to a drab series, it also denied it any oxygen to breathe.
Because there can be little doubt that Erasmus’ actions were borne out of a willingness to do anything in his power to avoid defeat and that kind of desperation, that fear of failure, seeped into players on both sides. Yes, South Africa have an effective style, so too the Lions under Gatland, and neither is particularly pleasing on the eye. But given the amount of work and upheaval that went into getting the series on, the greatest disappointment was that there is little memorable about it beyond Rassie’s rant.
Erasmus will not care less about that, but that is to rugby’s great shame and, at the very least, it should be a warning as to why a week like that cannot be allowed to happen again.