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Rassie in the dock: How punitive will World Rugby be?

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24th August, 2021
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World Cup winning coach Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus and his employer, South Africa Rugby, have brought World Rugby and the game itself into disrepute. So say World Rugby.

“I mean, the video!” is the common refrain, after Erasmus made a video in which he showed and described 26 of referee Nic Berry’s approximately 40 mistakes in the first Test of the British and Irish Lions series.

Since few pundits actually watched the rather tedious video – which did not stop many from calling it a ‘rant’ (it was not) – and because it actually had the effect Erasmus sought, and given that World Rugby has never shared their official position on the acceptable error-rate (weighted for ‘obviousness’ and ‘tough Tests’ as a Lions-Boks Test tends to be at the breakdown) the Regulation 18 hearing set for 24 August, 2021 promises to be illuminating.

Every rugby follower, player, and coach knows there will be errors, and that there is a spectrum of quality among referees, with some sort of pecking order based on error rates and the flow of the game.

However, World Rugby has never pulled back the curtain to explain why and how they rate referees, except at times to absolutely fold a ref for a mistake (for example, Craig Joubert) under extreme media pressure.

Erasmus and his captain, Siya Kolisi, are not known for whining after losses or harping about disrespect. Clearly, both felt something unusual here, or overreacted, or are acting.

Siya Kolisi

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

So, what then shall be done?

It is all very well to howl at the moon about how Erasmus needs to be punished severely, but fines and bans and forfeitures are legal moments in time, and given that many penalties World Rugby may contemplate are not ‘self-effectuating’ (for example, they cannot fire Erasmus, and if a levied fine were not paid by him, it is unclear how they would collect without going to a real court of law in a jurisdiction Erasmus is a subject citizen) the law will have a say.

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In a larger context, Erasmus’ rugby repute balance-sheet is decidedly favourable to the game. For every minute of his bitter video about Berry’s less-than-stellar performance, Rassie can show a year of extraordinary contributions to the sport he clearly loves, from racial reckoning to coaching innovation to township recruiting to funding bursaries to pioneering transparency.

Top-tier coaches (Eddie Jones and Michael Cheika come to mind) who have suggested the refs are biased against their team have been warned by World Rugby and its predecessor, the IRB, but escaped fines, bans, or forfeitures.

Not too long ago, Jones did not think a red card for Manu Tuilagi’s shoulder charge of George North was fair. He did not make an hourlong video, but arguably, his comment was far more blatantly damaging to the integrity of referees: “We were expecting a tough Test right to the end and we got it, but when you get 13 against 16, it’s pretty hard.”

That is a damning indictment.

Eddie Jones head coach of England

Eddie Jones, head coach of England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

He also warned Alun Wyn Jones not to intimidate referee Jerome Garces in 2018, after the old Welshman interfered with a Finn Russell conversion by making a well-timed question to Pascal Gauzere.

Jones cheekily commented: “We can’t have that in the game. That’s borrowed from another sport and I really hope World Rugby don’t allow that to creep into the game, because it shouldn’t be part of the game. I think it’s starting to creep in.”

Then, he laid the groundwork for diminishing AWJ’s hold of the ref: “Garcès won’t tolerate that sort of stuff. He won’t let Alun Wyn Jones referee the game.”

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This is classic man-shaming. And it worked.

Even Jones’ non-comments are direct attacks on World Rugby: “You’re not allowed to comment on referees now. World Rugby are like Big Brother — they have facial recognition everywhere – you say one word and you’re in trouble.”

This was probably a veiled reference to his fellow Randwick old-boy. Cheika was seen uttering “f—ing cheats” during a match.

Again, a one-minute interview of Erasmus in which he said Berry was a cheat would actually be far more damaging to the game than a 62-minute video if all the commentary in that video is factual and devoid of impugned motives or integrity, right?

Cheika also had form for claiming his captains were disrespected by refs.

He blasted Romain Poite for “absolutely ignoring” approaches from captain Stephen Moore to seek clarification on decisions, and said the referee failed to stop the game when David Pocock was down and needed a concussion test.

As Waratahs coach, Cheika was issued a warning by Super Rugby administrators after approaching referee Jaco Peyper for clarity on a scrum penalty during his side’s win over the Blues in Sydney, a breach of World Rugby Law 6.A.7.

Cheika and Peyper apologised for their actions. SANZAR found no evidence the exchange influenced Peyper’s handling of the match. The governing body wrote a reminder to all Super Rugby referees and coaches to remind them no such discussions should take place during a match.

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Cheika had a suspended six-month ban from all forms of rugby after being found guilty of verbally abusing a camera operator during the side’s loss to the Sharks in Durban.

The entire body of work of Cheika as coach is marked by routine critique of the game and its officialdom.

Michael Cheika

(Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

So where does Rassie’s video fit into this spectrum? Is it the worst communication ever by a ‘coach’?

Or does he, as a director of rugby, fit more into the mode of Mark Dodson, the Scottish Rugby Union CEO whose concerns about Scotland suffering collateral damage from Typhoon Hagibis cost his union 70,000 pounds and an apology?

Tone-deaf Dodson was quoted in the UK Telegraph, on BBC Radio 4 Today, and at the Scottish team announcement as calling World Rugby “rigid”.

World Rugby found Dodson’s comments “suggested an unfair and disorganised treatment of all teams, to be inappropriate and ill-judged at a time when Japan was preparing for the largest and most destructive typhoon in decades” and “brought the game into disrepute”.

A reprimanded SRU folded, scolded, and made immediate penance.

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“World Rugby can confirm that the Scottish Rugby Union has expressed its regret and has confirmed it will not challenge World Rugby further on this matter,” said World Rugby after that. It helped that Scotland was booted out of the Cup by the host and designated hero-team Japan.

The large fine was donated to the Childfund Pass it Back program, assisting with the ongoing relief effort in areas affected by Typhoon Hagibis.

Dodson is still CEO of SRU.

Here, World Rugby has taken the posture that “match officials are the backbone of the sport” and it “condemns any public criticism of their selection, performance or integrity which undermines their role, the well-established and trust-based coach-officials feedback process, and more importantly, the values that are at the heart of the sport.”

While Warren Gatland and his team also crossed the line, admit World Rugby, in laying the groundwork to cow the appointed TMO, the “extensive and direct nature of the comments made by Rassie Erasmus within a video” caused World Rugby to charge only the Bok director of rugby (and SARU) with violating Regulation 18.

Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach looks on

Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Their disciplinary council has appointed a three-person judicial panel to sit as officers and there is no doubt how this panel will rule.

However, an appeal panel is set up because the penalties will be scrutinised.

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Penalties include a caution, a warning as to future conduct, reprimand, a fine, suspension, stadium ban, cancellation of a match result, replaying of a match, forfeiture of a match or matches, deduction of points, expulsion from a tournament, or expulsion from World Rugby in total.

So, will the veracity of Erasmus’ actual points matter? If they are, for the most part, salient, will World Rugby use that as “mitigation”, rugby’s pet disciplinary word this century?

How can World Rugby outlaw a video presentation in toto, without discussing the truth of whether that really was a poorly refereed Test by Berry or not? Or is Eddie Jones right?

Sure, it was a deflection tactic. But can you actually ‘prove’ that in a court, enough to take 100,000 pounds from Erasmus or SAR?

So, to Erasmus’ points, such as they are.

1. He spent 14 minutes explaining Berry’s reluctance to debrief, resulting in only getting feedback on the Tuesday after the test. This does seem shabby, for the pinnacle of rugby series. Surely the feedback can be available on Sunday or Monday. The ref is off the hook for the week.

2. Rassie claims: “We asked Nic Berry specifically to give us much respect on the field as South Africans as the four countries, with four captains, so many leaders in their team. We only have two, Siya Kolisi the captain and Handre Pollard the [vice] captain. We asked if only they could speak to him and the same on their side. It was communicated it would happen that way.” It is clear, on that day, AWJ won the referee-whispering battle. John Smit said it looked like Berry and the most-capped test player ever “were on a date”.

3. He specifically said he is not saying Berry is a cheat but that Berry’s accuracy and consistency were not up to standard.

a. Erasmus shows Tom Curry making an obvious late charge on Faf de Klerk, entering a ruck from the side, and lifting the legs of Makazole Mapimpi; none penalised.

b. Then he shows Eliot Daly clearly holding back Mapimpi and focuses on how differently Kolisi is treated by Berry, compared to how he listens to Jones.

c. He shows two seat-belt tackles by Eben Etzebeth and Bongi Mbonambi which are correctly penalised, but one on Damian de Allende by the Lions goes unpunished.

d. The Hamish Watson tip tackle is portrayed as an obvious card by Erasmus: “I’m not saying this should be a red card, but I can’t see nothing less than a yellow.”

e. This seems universally accepted. Erasmus then pulls up a clip of Van der Merwe missed during the action, where the Lions wing comes in from the side and, as with Curry earlier, lifts the leg of Mapimpi. Again, fair.

f. The Boks get only an eight-second advantage before being told the play was over, but the Lions get a 24-second advantage later on. Erasmus here questions the officials’ “mindset”, which is steering right into World Rugby disciplinary territory. He is probably the ‘most’ right on this point, and yet, it could be their strongest snippet, because of the ‘mindset’ jibe.

g. Erasmus highlights a penalty against the Springboks where Kwagga Smith doesn’t release the ball; ‘milked’ by Courtenay Lawes and Ali Price, but points out when de Allende is trying to place the ball back and a Lions player is in the way, Berry deems de Allende is “placing the ball into their man”.

h. Finally, there’s another clip of the Lions not rolling away as de Klerk struggles for quick ball – as you’ll often see go unpunished.

i. Daly is seen not rolling away after Damian Willemse’s impressive restart take. Erasmus: “Consistency’s out the window. I think previously our guys shouldn’t have been penalised.”

j. Curry is seen in an offside position coming into a ruck, after Franco Mostert ensures a ruck is formed by getting over the ball at the breakdown. Erasmus is right. Curry does come in from the side and clear out a player at the legs. It goes unpunished.

k. The Itoje turnover penalty in the first half after Kolisi’s break is in Erasmus’ view a cynical foul. This is more debatable. But Erasmus is right when he shows three examples of the Springboks winning turnovers more clearly legal than Itoje’s and not being rewarded.

l. There’s an almost comical offside decision against de Allende, which Erasmus says Berry admitted wasn’t offside. It really was not close. He finds a Lions’ offsides – in a kickable position – not called. Fair enough, but nitpicky.

m. Another screenshot shows Daly clearly offside, right in front of the Lions’ posts.

n. He shows that ‘knee on the ground’ is not consistently reffed, unfortunately in Itoje’s favour, even on the last play of the game.

o. He shows Etzebeth being taken out in the air at a lineout, which is dangerous.

p. He shows Ox Nche getting his neck corkscrewed in a scrum by that man Curry.

q. He shows an extravagantly skew lineout throw by Luke Cowan-Dickie; uncalled.

r. Erasmus believes there wasn’t enough compelling evidence to rule out le Roux’s try for him being in front of Lukanyo Am’s kick. Most would agree. But where Erasmus again could be in trouble is he links the curious decision by Marius Jonker to the pressure by Warren Gatland in the week leading up to the test. Conjecture.

s. Erasmus shows a clip of Kolbe landing on his back after trying to take a catch by the touchline. It’s ruled he caught the ball out on the full. Erasmus is correct: the call is botched three ways. Kolbe was not in touch. He was played in the air. And he was picked up off the deck, a no-no in rugby.

Yes, the Lions could have made a similar video, but it would have been shorter. Much shorter. They got the rub of the green. A big rub. It was a 2:1 ratio.

Erasmus knew he would be in trouble for the video. But he did a decent job of making World Rugby uncomfortable.

Do they just say: “It does not matter if almost all the points are right?” Or: “Well, our review showed 40 clear errors”, which would seem to open up another can of worms?

Should there be less than ten or maybe 20? If there are 40 and that is fine, does that not bring the game more into disrepute than Erasmus’ video identifying 26 (the ones that hurt his team)?

What is the actual disrepute? The making of the video as a whole? Publishing it? Or the contents?

If it is some of the content, what part and why? And why would a coach who says “I am not calling the ref a cheat” and then actually and correctly shows the errors, be punished more than a coach who says “f—ing cheats” and is wrong about the errors?

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The case of Erasmus is crying out for a deal to be brokered. A fine that is just big enough to sound big, but small enough not to be appealed or litigated. Earmarked for referee development, to save face. No real examination or revelation of referee standards. No test of the power of World Rugby to collect on a fine from an individual. An apology. A joint video with Erasmus and Berry: RassieBerry TV.

If either side is backed up into a corner too tight, they will definitely bring the game into disrepute. But the question: does rugby have the ‘repute’ it deserves? And is truth ever slander?

It is judgement day, but then, there is appeal month, and enforcement year and fallout decade.

The plot is thick and it may thicken yet.

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