There’s method behind the madness of rugby’s great actors, says Jon Cardinelli

Comment: Why Rassie Erasmus produced that video

We live in a world where one party is forever accusing the other of lying or imposing a false narrative. Often it’s difficult to know which party is telling the truth, and which party is using a particular accusation or narrative as a means of distraction.

Warren Gatland and Rassie Erasmus are masters of misdirection. If you’re familiar with the manner in which Gatland has presided over Wales, and indeed the British & Irish Lions for three tours, you’ll know that the shrewd New Zealander never reveals the extent of his plans before the time is right.

Erasmus is much the same. The South African loves to keep opposite numbers guessing as to whether there is any truth in his pre-match statements. Jacques Nienaber, who succeeded Erasmus as head coach after the 2019 World Cup in Japan, is from the same rugby school of witchcraft and wizardry.

Nienaber may come across as quiet and even deferent to Erasmus when both men are seated at the top table of a press conference. He may plead ignorance about Erasmus’s social media activities and may give the impression that he isn’t completely certain about the game plan or even the team schedule.

And if you take Nienaber at face value in that environment, you may be inclined to wonder whether he really has the tactical nous or the stomach to succeed at this level.

Behind the scenes, Nienaber is a different animal. His knowledge of the game is formidable. His barking voice echoes across the training field and within the confines of the video analysis room. The players’ respect for him borders on reverence. Nienaber challenges and debates Erasmus on a regular basis.

Understanding the dramatis personae is the first step towards understanding the nature of the play itself. Why do these characters do what they do in the media? And what bearing will this behaviour have on the next game – a match the Boks have to win in order to keep the Lions 2021 series alive?

It’s tempting to take Erasmus’s recent performances at face value. The South African director of rugby has made headlines for serving as the Boks’ waterboy over the past few weeks. He’s made headlines for posting controversial refereeing decisions to Twitter and for liaising with a mystery user operating under the name ‘Jaco Johan’ – a somewhat thinly veiled reference to Nienaber and Erasmus’s first names.

On Thursday, Erasmus made headlines again after a scathing 62-minute analysis of the refereeing decisions in the first Test was leaked. In the video, Erasmus played the part of the wronged party to perfection.

Erasmus spoke passionately and angrily about the injustices his team had suffered. He was unshaven and visibly exhausted – and perhaps this was deliberate. Perhaps it served to highlight that South Africa are sick and tired of being dealt a poor hand by officials.


There were many layers to this performance.

If you’ve been keeping score, Erasmus and his opposite number have been in the news far more than their players over the past few weeks. It could be said that through his press conference declarations and social media statements, Erasmus has drawn the spotlight away from a Springbok team that has enough to worry about at present.

That is not to suggest that Erasmus’s actions and statements should be completely dismissed.

As he explained in the video that dropped on social media on Thursday, he is well within his rights to perform the waterboy duties as he is no longer the head coach.

Furthermore, his analysis of referee Nic Berry’s performance in the first Test between the Boks and Lions points to a greater issue in the game with regards to officials and ‘pick and choose’ approach to the laws.

The laws remain open to interpretation, especially around the breakdown. Referees nowadays are hard-pressed to juggle the implementation of these laws with a mandate to keep the contest flowing.

Ultimately, referees are an easy target for coaches, who have the means to identify mistakes and discrepancies and – as Erasmus has shown – to pass these on to the media and public.

Erasmus has been criticised for “attacking all referees”, but perhaps there should be greater scrutiny of lawmakers and World Rugby officials who perpetuate this type of situation.

How might technology improve the levels of officiating and how might it provide the TMO with definitive evidence at key moments of a contest? This past week, there has been much debate about TMO Marius Jonker’s performance.

Perhaps another question should be asked: Why are these decisions hinging on judgement calls by an official who has access to a limited number of camera angles?

Why can’t ball-tracking technology be harnessed by officials to judge whether a player was offside, or indeed whether there was a knock-on in the build-up to a try?

Cricket and tennis don’t rely solely on umpires to make tight calls. Many decisions are influenced by HawkEye. Why can’t rugby follow suit?

Again, while Erasmus raised some relevant points over the course of his analysis, one has to ask why such an analysis was performed in the first place.

Erasmus made mention of the fact that Gatland publicly criticised the appointment of a South African TMO ahead of the first Test. He believes that Gatland placed undue pressure on Jonker, and that the resultant pressure influenced Jonker’s decisions on game day.

Erasmus spoke at length about various issues in the first Test, and highlighted the mistakes made by Berry. While speaking to camera, he addressed the referees and officials by name, as if they might see the footage at a later stage and take his comments to heart.

But this piece of analysis was not reactive. Erasmus’s message appeared to be directed at the referee of the second Test, Ben O’Keeffe.

Consider the buzzwords and phrases used again and again over the course of the video.

Respect. Fairness. Erasmus felt that Boks captain Siya Kolisi and the team as a whole were not treated with the same respect as their Lions counterparts.

Inconsistency. Lack of clarity. Erasmus went out of his way to highlight how the Boks were penalised for the same transgressions that the Lions got away with.

The words as well as the tone were secondary to the visual representation of the point. Erasmus offered more than an opinion. He offered evidence.

These buzzwords and themes will be impressed upon O’Keeffe when he meets with the Boks coaches and captain. The whole rugby world will be watching on Saturday to see whether O’Keeffe lives up to Erasmus’s standards – and whether he is consistent and clear in his management of what could be an ill-tempered match.

Ben O’Keeffe is the referee for the second Test (Getty Images)

Erasmus is happy for O’Keeffe to penalise the Boks so long as the Lions are penalised for the same infringements. It could be said that the South African director of rugby has taken a gamble by inviting the referee to watch the home team more closely. And yet, it seems to be a trade-off that Erasmus is willing to make.

Could the Boks have something else in store for the Lions this Saturday? While Erasmus has called attention to key areas like the tackle and the breakdown, and ultimately hinted at another battle in the trenches, could he and Nienaber be setting the Lions up for a tactical surprise?

Misdirection. We’ve seen plenty of it to date in this series.

Gatland and the Lions have been praised for their off-field tactics as well as the shrewd management of the officials over the course of the tour. Perhaps the Boks will receive similar praise if all goes to plan on Saturday.

Many have vilified Erasmus in the wake of his recent analysis. Many have argued that the South African – and to some extent Gatland – have gone too far and have effectively brought the game into disrepute.

Erasmus and Gatland, however, are not the first to use the media to influence the public and officials in the lead-up to a big Test. These mind games have long been part of the sport.

There was a time in the mid-2000s when Australian boss Eddie Jones and Boks coach Jake White traded pre-match insults  – only to share a laugh about the phoney battle after the real war was complete.

“It’s all theatre, mate,” Jones famously quipped, when he was asked about the comments and tactics employed in the lead-up to game day.

Perhaps we should enjoy the show while it lasts, and attempt to understand how this exposition may be racing towards an explosive denouement.

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