Cape Town - The Rassie Erasmus refereeing saga seems to be at a crossroads – you are either for him or against him, and there is no middle ground.
But should there be?
Like much of his career as a coach, the enigmatic Erasmus splits opinion. Those Springbok supporters in his corner point to the fact that his infamous videos and tweets are all clear evidence that calls are going unfairly against the world champions.
It is not about marginal decisions, but blatant errors being made by the match officials that favour the opposition.
There have been so many examples in just the first two Tests of the current November tour of Europe that it is a bit of a surprise that Erasmus didn’t make a few more 62-minute videos like he did about Nic Berry’s performance in the first British and Irish Lions Test last year.
These were high stakes matches against the No 1 and No 2 sides in the world, and the Boks would’ve liked nothing more than to knock over Ireland and France in Dublin and Marseille respectively.
That they came so close, losing 19-16 and 30-26, and then having refereeing decisions play a major part in denying them those victories, makes it so much more difficult to accept those blunders.
There was even an incident in last weekend’s 63-21 walloping of Italy in Genoa, where a quick line-out was taken by the Azzurri and it ended up in exciting fullback Ange Capuozzo scoring in the left-hand corner – the throw-in hadn’t gone five metres, but was not picked up by the match officials.
Of course, due to his two-test ban, there was no Erasmus video and tweet afterwards.
But the bigger picture for the SA director of rugby is to ensure that a wrong call doesn’t cost the Boks the Rugby World Cup title in France next year.
Erasmus has followed the World Rugby protocols before, and got no joy out of that process.
He explained previously how a delay in getting a response about decisions from the weekend’s game meant that he couldn’t help the players fix their errors in time for the next game, and the more important point is that the Boks continue to be on the wrong end of many vital calls.
So, what gives?
The other side of the Bok fan spectrum feels that Erasmus has gone too far with his videos, and he is actually causing damage to the team and the brand – and in fact, the tweets are giving the match officials further reason to be tougher on the South Africans, and that they won’t be getting the tight calls going their way.
So, it could be argued that the best course of action is for Erasmus to rather keep quiet and try the World Rugby complaints process again to get answers on those debatable decisions.
World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin made it clear on a BBC podcast this week that while he wants to open a real line of communication with SA Rugby about the whole post-game process and sanctions, the two-test suspension of Erasmus was about “protecting officials at all levels”.
“This is about every referee who is, on a Sunday morning, refereeing kids’ rugby anywhere in the world, having permission to do the job properly, and not having every parent on the touchline posting videos on social media,” Gilpin told the BBC’S Rugby Union Daily podcast.
“That’s the really important thing in terms of the integrity of the game.
“The referees will be the first to tell you they welcome feedback. They are really up for those discussions with coaches.
“We have to make sure we protect them in that sense. South Africa is a brilliant and really important part of the game across men’s and women’s, Sevens and 15-a-side.
“They are world champions, and Rassie has done amazing things with that team and is clearly an amazing coach.
“But our view – and he may not agree – is that he has crossed the line. For us, it is really important we reinforce where those lines are, for everybody to see.
“Being a rugby referee is the toughest job in sport. Let’s give these guys, and the brilliant women who are doing that job, the best support and chance we can, and work with them for them to improve. And that is a responsibility the top coaches have got to take as well.”
SA Rugby have yet to officially respond to the Erasmus ban, but Independent Media understands that there is great unhappiness about his behaviour in the corridors of the local governing body’s offices, and that they are deliberating about whether they should take any further steps against the former loose forward.
There have been a number of leading figures in South African rugby who have also expressed the view that Erasmus has got it wrong, including former coaches Nick Mallett and Jake White, as well as 2007 World Cup-winning captain John Smit.
They all feel that Erasmus is not creating a good impression as the man in charge of the national team, and that his social media posts are actually hindering the Boks’ ability to get decisions to go their way on the pitch.
They have said on various platforms that they feel Erasmus needs to take a step back and get out of the limelight, and allow head coach Jacques Nienaber and captain Siya Kolisi to handle the public side of things, and that he should continue his in-house role with the Boks and rest of his duties as the director of rugby instead.
But the problem with that approach is that it won’t change the status quo, where the Boks are losing big Test matches because of refereeing mistakes.
Another issue is home-town decisions. Why is it that the host nation tend to have 50-50 calls go their way?
Rugby is a fully professional sport, and such conduct belongs in the amateur era and should not be tolerated in the modern world. The technology is available too, and TMOS need to play a greater role to ensure the correct decision is made.
It was laughable that the communication between Wayne Barnes and the TMO suddenly didn’t work during the Marseille Test when France scored a questionable late try where a double movement was a possibility.
Of course, there will be errors in any match but there needs to be a greater buy-in from World Rugby as well. They need to acknowledge that there is a problem, and be much more transparent in how they deal with it instead of the current procedure, where everything is done behind closed doors.
Rugby has made some strides in recent years to make the sport more popular across the globe, and we’ve seen some remarkable progress in the World Cup qualifiers, where a team like Portugal edged out the United States recently – while the Americans will also host the 2031 tournament.
But the public must be party to the whole process of how match officials are evaluated and how mistakes in matches are addressed afterwards, as it is the fans who pack out the stadiums every weekend and pay exorbitant amounts of money to watch games on TV and other platforms.
And players and coaches must be made to feel confident that their concerns and issues are being dealt with fairly, as their careers are on the line as well.
Why should referees be “protected”, as Gilpin said, if they are continually slipping up on the biggest stage?
Yes, the principle is that there is no game if there isn’t a referee. But that doesn’t mean those officials should not come under intense scrutiny, just like players and coaches are on a daily basis.
The 50-year-old Erasmus has not just opened a can of worms, but he has sliced it and diced it too, and he is suffering the consequences as a result.
Whether you like him and his methods in doing so or not – and he probably did overdo the videos – it will hopefully result in the Boks getting a fair shake on the pitch …