Rugby – A wonderful distraction from the horrors of July

It was the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly who uttered the immortal words, “some people think football’s a matter of life and death, I can assure you it’s much much more.”

The current British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa is shaping up a little like that, with unedifying glances into the behaviour of those who really should know better. For the trainspotters amongst the most ardent fans though, this week’s been pure rugby gold.

It started last week with Lions’ coach Warren Gatland using old media, to wit the travelling sports hacks from the British papers, to leak a story that he was incensed by the appointment of Marius Jonkers as the TV Match Official after the New Zealander originally selected by World Rugby couldn’t make it.

The leaked story did its trick. Jonker, usually one of the best TMOs in the game, behaved like a rabbit in the headlights last Saturday. He was so determined to be impartial, that he disallowed two possible Springbok tries. The Lions eventually won by five points.

This week it was game on; Bok fans were incensed that their team had lost – despite being riddled with COVID-19. Jonker took it in the neck, but no one took on Gatland for his gamesmanship. Enter Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby. He had already got up the Lions’ noses for acting as water boy going on the pitch to pass on advice – even though the Lions use their kicking coach to the same effect.

Erasmus took to Twitter; officially asking questions about rugby safety in the guise of his role as director and retweeting other accounts – one maybe a burner account run by himself or even coach Jacques Nienaber – to point out glaring errors in the refereeing of last Saturday’s test. It was a very clever ruse, especially against the trolling standards of RET-istas and Bell Pottinger-bots. 

The Lions though had a sense of humour failure, but nothing compared to some of the UK sports journalists who got stuck in boots and all. None, if any, seemed to look at the merits of what Erasmus was saying; they literally played the man not the ball. 

Then Erasmus twisted the thumbscrews at little tighter by saying South Africa would never take issue with the fact (or mention) that the ref for tonight’s critically important second test is a New Zealander, just like Gatland – while doing just that in the process.

It’s been great fun, a vital distraction from the horror show that July has been for South Africa. It does show how much is at stake tonight, which is maybe why Erasmus went out to rattle some cages and divert all the attention from the team, so they could prepare unhindered for what has become a must win game in a series that will only come around again in 12 years’ time. 

In the end though there’s only one thing that people remember, as our own Shankley, Bok legend Boy Louw immortally put it: “looks at the scoreboard”. 

We’ll know that answer tonight.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 31 July 2021.