Gerry Thornley: An ugly week for rugby but it’s not always like this

The second Lions Test was another brutal advertisement for the game of rugby

This has been a truly unique and memorable tour for many reasons, but sadly not because of the rugby. That was an ugly week for the sport. Bitter, spiteful, bad-tempered and boiling over with grievances. And the match followed a similar route too.

The collateral damage to the sport has been manifold, for Saturday’s second Test was another brutal advertisement for the game, on several fronts. The anti-rugby lobby will have had a field day. So too the anti-Lions lobby, whose number has surely swollen after such an unimaginative display.

It isn’t always like this, thank heaven. Anyone watching Harlequins’ wins in the semi-final and final of the Premiership can testify to that. Equally so the dramatic three-match series between the Wallabies and what amounted to a third-string French team last month which were decided in the 85th, 79th and 80th minutes.

Ironically, the third Test began with Ben O’Keeffe brandishing a fifth minute red to Marika Koroibete for a high shot on the French captain Anthony Jelonch, largely at the behest of his TMO, fellow Kiwi Glenn Newman.


That hit was, if anything, lower than Faf de Klerk’s on Conor Murray last Saturday. In picking himself up from that and the earlier, head-first summersault toward the ground resulting from Cheslin Kolbe taking him out in the air, Murray proved he is made of tough stuff.

A difference was that Jelonch made much more out of Koroibete’s tackle and not for the first time lately one began to wonder if the victims are better served doing a passable imitation of a wounded Cristiano Ronaldo.

Some viewers felt that Dan Biggar was guilty of ‘simulation’ in the scuffle which followed Kolbe taking out Murray. But he was blindsided from behind by the 108kg Bongi Mbonambi, who charged into him and led with his left elbow/forearm. To paraphrase Rassie, the Boks’ hooker certainly seemed to show a lack of respect toward Biggar there.

This happened two feet in front of O’Keeffe, who watched Biggar fall to the ground, and all four officials saw it unfold in their lengthy deliberations after Kolbe took out Murray before O’Keeffe wrongly decreed that Murray had landed on his back.

After a strong start Nigel Owens on Sky’s commentary team (a fitting first in this series, if further heightening the focus on officials) detected that O’Keeffe and his assistants were nervous even before things boiled over. Who could blame them? Officiating paralysis due to Rassie’s analysis, so to speak.

Erasmus is primarily culpable but neither he nor the Springboks will give a damn at what cost to the game. Almost as an aside, his rant also further polarised opinion between South Africans and Lions’ supporters.

The Lions are no shrinking violets either, and it beggared belief that Kyle Sinckler was the only player cited

All Rassie apparently really cares about is winning, at whatever cost, as if the Boks have a divine right to win this series. This sense of entitlement is perhaps further heightened from being world champions.

Recall too the tour 12 years ago, when Schalk Burger eye gouged Luke Fitzgerald in the first minute of the second Test, and the Boks coach Peter de Villiers reckoned: “I don’t think it should have been a card at all. For me and for everybody, this is sport. This is what it is all about.”

To the credit of the SARU at the time, their president Oregan Hoskins publicly apologised for those comments, with a qualified apology by de Villiers, but he still maintained that Burger was not guilty of gouging after he was banned for eight weeks.


“If there is really a case we are going with now, why don’t we all go to the nearest ballet shop and get some nice tutus, get a great dancing show going on, no eye-gouging, no tackling, no nothing and then we will all enjoy it,” he ventured.

Recall too that after Bakkies Botha was suspended for two weeks for a dangerous charge on Adam Jones in a clear-out, the Boks wore those ridiculous white arm bands in the third Test with the words ‘Justice 4’ in protest. Of all the injustices in the world they picked that one?

The Lions are no shrinking violets either, and it beggared belief that Kyle Sinckler was the only player cited, which further damages the game’s image.

Finally, having seemed to fiddle while Rome burned, World Rugby issued disciplinary proceedings against Erasmus last night. But although he offered to step aside as water carrier, in all likelihood he will carry on unashamedly next Saturday, a persecuted hero in his own land.

Maybe Erasmus and the Boks might reflect on how the Georgians facilitated their preparations at short notice before outbreaks of Covid in both camps forced the cancellation of their second Test, and his own ensuing comments.

“I think the moment you bring teams from the outside in - not that I’m pointing any fingers at Georgia - it is a very tough situation to control. After we played Georgia that’s when all our infections started.”

No finger pointing there at all.

Meanwhile Georgian head coach Levan Maisashvili remains in a Johannesburg hospital after initially being diagnosed with “serious lung damage” after testing positive for Covid.

But as Rassie also put it in his rant, “I’m not saying the referee is a cheat at all.” There was no insinuation either in that 62-minute presentation.

Ironically, the Lions will do well to break even financially. Aside from trying to maintain the brand, the primary purpose of bringing a party of almost 80 people to South Africa for six weeks, with all the sacrifices living in a bio-secure family entails, being away from their families (something the Boks are not doing, even in the midst of a devastating third wave of the pandemic), friends and homes was to afford SA Rugby a financial lifeline of an estimated €30m.

Maybe Erasmus and the Boks coaches will find the right words next week, albeit probably only if they win mind. But if they do, rather like’s Rassie’s tweet congratulating the Lions soon after their first Test win, and the Boks miraculously declaring their respect for the officials and World Rugby since Saturday’s second Test win, they will have a very hollow ring.