Rassie Erasmus took referee-baiting too far but his ban galvanises South Africa

The Springboks are in need of a new water carrier for Saturday’s match at Twickenham. Responsibilities include marshalling the defence, identifying weaknesses in the opposition’s line and relaying important information from the coach’s box. Oh, and hydrating the players on the field.

The incumbent, Rassie Erasmus, who moonlights as the director of rugby, has been banned from all rugby activities for two months and suspended from all match‑day activities until September next year. His punishment, meted out by World Rugby for his 62-minute video in which he criticised in detail the refereeing performance of Nic Berry in the first Test of the British & Irish Lions tour, also carries a warning “as to his future conduct”. Erasmus has been instructed to apologise to the relevant match officials, as has SA Rugby, which must now pay a £20,000 fine.

Erasmus and SA Rugby will appeal. Of course they will. This saga was never going to end quietly, whatever verdict the global governing body landed on. What is more intriguing is how this changes the cultural landscape of South African rugby and its standing abroad.

Several newspapers and websites – including this one – suggested Erasmus’s reputation has been “shredded” and that it “lies in tatters”. That may be true in other countries but that is certainly not the case back in South Africa. If anything it has enhanced his status, turning him into a martyr of sorts, a righteous campaigner who knew the risks of standing up to those with their hands on the levers of power and did it anyway. According to his defenders Erasmus is not an unhinged maniac, he is a brave knight charging into dragon fire to preserve the dignity of his people.

South African rugby fans are fickle, but they are loyal. They can also be insecure at times. This is a wider societal issue in a former colony that is the most economically unequal in the world, where honest politicians are as rare as drop-kicking props, where a full day without a power cut is considered a luxury and where crime stats – particularly against women – are both astounding and numbing. The Springboks stand out. This team is the country’s best asset right now. And an attack on one is an attack on all.

After lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019, Siya Kolisi’s side became the darlings of the game. A Laureus World Sports award for team of the year capped off a remarkable journey, one encapsulated in a tear-jerking documentary that Erasmus co-produced. The most racially diverse Springbok outfit included players who had risen out of poverty. This was more than a team, it was a symbol, one eclipsing even the heroes of 1995.

Then Covid hit. With South Africa placed under strict lockdown, the Springboks were denied their year-long victory parade. As the Six Nations continued in empty stadiums, and their southern hemisphere rivals played on without them, the glow of their triumph faded.

They entered the Lions tour undercooked and eager to assert their champion status. That this would come against a unified force from the British Isles is significant. The Home Nations have long plundered South African talent and some hangovers from the days of empire have yet to recede. That Erasmus is Afrikaans has not been lost in the narrative.

The mood was already sour by the time Erasmus released/leaked/accidentally hit “send” on his video. Warren Gatland, the Lions coach, had questioned a referee’s decision in a press conference and hostilities between journalists, at times acting as jingoistic cheerleaders, were adding a sordid intrigue to a contest stripped of fans as a result of the pandemic.

But, and this should be obvious no matter your allegiance, Erasmus took it too far. World Rugby’s 80-page report revealed that he threatened Berry that unless a request for a private meeting took place, he would publish the critical footage. However the video was made public, Erasmus seemingly made good on that threat.

“One of the points made by the respondents is that referees must be able to accept feedback,” the judgment stated. “That is a fair observation. However, there is a difference between feedback and abuse.”

This verdict places power back in the hands of referees but it will not dispel questions concerning the content of Erasmus’s video. A poor decision from a referee can cost a coach his job. This already delicate relationship has been damaged.

Berry’s testimony humanised the affair: “The whole situation has been an extremely difficult time for my family and I. His actions are against everything our game stands for and I feel it’s important to take a stand against such behaviour.”

A stand has been taken, opinions on either side of the divide have calcified, and a team that were not long ago a bastion of hope around the world have now become a lightning rod for a toxic chapter in rugby’s history.

None of this will have a major bearing on Saturday’s match against England though, like the World Rugby awards snub this week, it may provide extra motivation for the players. Those 80 minutes will likely be as intense as any match between the Springbok and Red Rose. After that, the circus will roll on.