South Africa's director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Luigi Bennett/EPA
South Africa's director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Luigi Bennett/EPA

Rassie Erasmus blows the whistle on World Rugby’s archaic system

By Mark Keohane Time of article published Jul 31, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - WORLD Rugby can turn what they see as the biggest betrayal into the greatest advancement of their professional game. They can either listen to Rassie Erasmus or lash him and restrict his involvement in the game.

Erasmus, South Africa’s National Director of Rugby, broke with every one of the archaic World Rugby protocols that protect match officials; these protocols, that since the game went professional in 1996, have reinforced acceptance of mediocrity and excused any form of match official incompetence or bias.

There is something wrong with the system when number 31 on the field, the person with the whistle, has the importance of being No 1. There is something seriously wrong with a system that rewards inconsistency and interpretation and doesn’t condemn the failure to apply the laws.

ALSO READ: Siya Kolisi says referee Nic Berry didn’t show him respect in first Lions Test

There is something wrong with a system that continues to promote protocols when the eyes of a global following continuously watch in horror as match officials make mistake after mistake, in the heat of the moment and also with the benefit of video replays, many of which are slowed down to a freeze-frame.

There is something wrong with the system when a coach cannot get feedback from World Rugby’s head of referees or from the relevant Test match officials a day after a Test has been played. There is something wrong with the system when a referee, at the heart of the most contentious officiating in the biggest rugby series of the year, can dismiss a National Director of Rugby’s request to talk because he wants to enjoy a 5pm Sunday power nap.

There is something wrong with a system, in which its leaders shrug off the most blatant officiating errors, with the cliché ‘that some go your way and some don’t’ and that ‘officials are only human’.

ALSO READ: Rugby Australia slams Rassie Erasmus over referee 'abuse'

If the chief executive of a company continues to make the wrong calls and his company suffers, that chief executive isn’t excused on the basis of being human and ‘human error’. An analysis is done and if he is not competent enough to lead that company, he is replaced.

Why are referees and match officials allowed to escape their inglorious moments?

Matches are lost and coaching jobs and playing careers are influenced because referees make big mistakes. What was once excused on the basis of a referee being a loyal servant to the traditions of the game can no longer apply.

Australian referee Nic Berry, in charge of the Springboks versus British & Irish Lions series opener, shouldn’t be applauded for being a good guy, who made a Saturday game of rugby possible because he was willing to step in as a referee.

ALSO READ: OPINION: Rassie Erasmus deserves credit for challenging World Rugby

Refereeing is the profession Berry, like this Saturday’s referee Ben O’Keeffe, chose. They get paid to officiate in rugby

matches all over the world. The same principles of scrutiny must apply to the referees as they do to professional players and coaches.

World Rugby, as the custodians of the sport, have a chance to right the wrongs when it comes to officiating, if they are mature enough to pause for a moment and absorb what Erasmus said, what match footage clips he showed, and just why he felt it necessary to do so on every social media platform.

Can World Rugby look inwards before reacting externally and towards Erasmus by way of a suspension, fine or expulsion from the world order?

I doubt it!

World Rugby predictably will take aim at the messenger.

They will charge Erasmus with bringing the game into disrepute and they will be able to charge him repeatedly with breaking ranks and every regulation that protects the supposed ethos of the game. What ethos, though?

ALSO READ: WATCH: Match officials showed Springboks captain Siya Kolisi a ’lack of respect’

An ethos that favours match officials getting it wrong? An ethos that speaks to controversy because of bias and even the perception of cheating?

World Rugby’s leadership, in the way they awarded the rights to World Cup hosts, and on so many other issues, needs a cleansing.

Erasmus, by blowing up the building, has provided them with the opportunity to start afresh in the professional game when it comes to match officials and also when it comes to all perceptions of an ‘old boys’ club.

Erasmus this week released the most damning hour-long video, in which he highlighted 26 instances of the match officials getting decisions wrong against the Springboks. He challenged his Lions counterpart Warren Gatland to produce a video the equal of what he was sharing with the world.

Erasmus used social media and the power of these platforms to educate and inspire a potential change to a century-old institution that does not know the meaning of the word transparency.

Never before has the term ‘whistle-blower’ been more appropriate than when describing Erasmus, and World Rugby’s response demands something that speaks to a healthier future and not a cancerous past.

World Rugby’s leadership has indirectly been challenged and these people who govern have the most wonderful opportunity to turn what they see as the darkest moment into one that finally sheds light on a topic that can no longer be viewed as a taboo.

Erasmus could have delivered his message differently. There is no disputing that, but he chose the most public expression out of desperation and frustration.

The easiest thing to do is to bring the guillotine down on Erasmus’s head, but killing the one bringing the message will not kill off the message.

And the message is that match officials got 26 decisions wrong when it came to the Springboks, and possibly many more if you factor in a Lions-specific video.

Look beyond who won and lost the Test and look at why we are having this discussion.

It is not about the Springboks losing, just like Eddie Jones’s outage at O’Keeffe a year ago was not about England losing, because they won.

Jones, like Erasmus, challenged how a match official could get so much wrong and not suffer a consequence.

The difference was that Jones, at his post-match press conference after England beat Wales, scratched a scab, whereas Erasmus has taken a surgeon’s knife to World Rugby, and one can either be disgusted at the perceived reckless nature of the incision or delighted at the calculated cut to clean the infection.


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