The South Africa captain Siya Kolisi has made the remarkable claim that he was shown a lack of respect by the referee Nic Berry during last Saturday’s defeat by the British & Irish Lions as the Springboks lashed out at the touring side, accusing Warren Gatland of “destroying the dignity of the series”.
Doubling down on Rassie Erasmus’s outburst over perceived injustices from officials as the extraordinary war of words intensified before Saturday’s second Test, Kolisi agreed with his director of rugby that he was treated differently to the Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones. The Springboks assistant Mzwandile Stick then took a swipe at Gatland for making his anger known about the appointment of the South African TMO Marius Jonker last week. Earlier, Rugby Australia slammed Erasmus for an “unacceptable” attack on Berry, labelling his rant as “against the spirit and values of the game”.
The British & Irish Lions, meanwhile, have insisted they have received assurances from Saturday’s referee Ben O’Keeffe that he will not be affected in the second Test against South Africa following Erasmus’s comments. Erasmus is under investigation by World Rugby after a video of him launching an hour-long diatribe about some of the decisions made by Berry, who will be one of O’Keeffe’s assistants on Saturday, emerged on Thursday. Kolisi could also face disciplinary action from World Rugby.
Despite the governing body’s investigation and palpable anger from Rugby Australia, however, the Springboks stuck to their guns. Kolisi said: “I didn’t feel respected at all. I didn’t feel I was given a fair opportunity. I didn’t feel I was given the same access to the referee [as Jones] and there is proof if you watch the game again, you will definitely be able to see.” Asked to expand on his claim, Kolisi simply replied: “Did you watch the video?”
Erasmus and South Africa have stepped on the offensive this week, after Gatland’s anger at Jonker’s appointment, rather than a neutral replacement when the New Zealander Brendon Pickerill withdrew, last week. On Friday Stick said: “If Rassie got into trouble because of what he said on social media, then the gentleman that challenged the integrity of the game at the beginning, when the TMO was challenged, I think that is something that really destroyed the dignity of the series. And it also challenges the integrity of World Rugby.”
The Lions, for their part, have largely sought to avoid engaging with Erasmus this week but the assistant coach Robin McBryde has spoken of his dislike for “openly challenging decisions by the referee” with Stuart Hogg launching a charm offensive and describing O’Keeffe as “one of the best referees I’ve had to deal with”.
World Rugby’s public response to Erasmus on Thursday was to say that his comments had been noted and that they would be raised with the South African union. Rugby Australia, however, has come out firing, insisting, “there is no place for abuse of match officials in Australian Rugby, with Rugby Australia committed to promoting a fair, safe and inclusive rugby experience for all participants, officials and fans. Rugby Australia believes the recent actions are unacceptable and against the spirit and values of the game”.
Rugby Australia’s chief executive, Andy Marinos, added: “Match officials form the very fabric of our game – simply, the game would not exist without them. As a highly regarded and respected international referee appointed by World Rugby, the attack on Nic’s integrity, character and reputation is unacceptable.”
Erasmus’s frustrations centre on what South Africa perceive is a lack of respect shown by the officials towards Kolisi compared to Jones as well as the time it took to receive feedback from World Rugby about an array of decisions he felt went against his side.
His comments have also been seen in some quarters as an attempt to put additional pressure on the officials on Saturday but as the Lions seek to wrap up the series they have been put at ease by O’Keeffe, Berry and Mathieu Raynal, who will also act as an assistant on Saturday.
“We had a good meeting with the referees, as Ben O’Keefe said himself, we’re aware there’s a lot of stuff out there on social media, but that’s not going to affect anything,” said McBryde. “That’s just a sideshow. We had a positive discussion with the referee. Everyone realises they’re in a tough place. They’ve got a tough job to do. But we were really happy with Nic Berry last Saturday and I don’t think it will be any different this weekend either.”
Hogg, meanwhile, was glowing in his praise of O’Keeffe, having had prior dealings with him when acting as Scotland’s captain. Even before the video emerged, Erasmus appeared to attempt to hit back at the Lions’ fury over Jonker’s appointment by insisting he would never bring attention to the fact that both O’Keeffe and Warren Gatland are New Zealanders. But Hogg said: “In the short time I’ve been Scotland captain Ben O’Keeffe has been one of the best referees I’ve had to deal with.
‘That’s a reason why a large majority of his games when he’s involved are allowed to flow, you’re allowed to get on with it, and he helped me massively in the couple of games we’ve had him when I’ve been leading the side.”