The Wrap: Springboks victory surge vindicates Erasmus, but at what cost?

When all of the nonsense associated with this Lions versus South Africa series is stripped away – and that will take some doing – what will be left is a measure of both sides against rugby’s base elements. Who won the contest for possession, who won the contest at the gain line, who limited their […]

The Wrap: Springboks victory surge vindicates Erasmus, but at what cost?

When all of the nonsense associated with this Lions versus South Africa series is stripped away – and that will take some doing – what will be left is a measure of both sides against rugby’s base elements.

Who won the contest for possession, who won the contest at the gain line, who limited their errors, who took opportunities to convert field position into points?

The first 120 minutes of the series delivered near to a stalemate. But Saturday’s second half, a 21-0 whitewash, accurately reflected the Springboks’ dominance in all of those key aspects, and in the process, has shifted all of the pressure back to Warren Gatland and the Lions to find a way to eke out a series victory next weekend.

To say that there has been little expressive, open rugby played is to state the obvious, however this is a series dominated by exceedingly well organised defensive lines, compressing and squeezing space from the field, while executing with ruthless precision on the tackle.

Both groups may have parked their attacking ambition, but frankly, is it any wonder when space on the field has been harder to find than an Australian state premier who gives a fig about the national interest?

What little backline play that has been seen, has been marked by both sides being forced across the field; a natural reaction to the wall of steel in front of them, but on such an angle to render the tactic useless.

Multiple phase play, with players in motion off quick ruck ball has been absent. Not because the referees have failed to ensure a clean breakdown, but because of the assertive quality of the tackling, and the speed at which both sides have blocked off both sides of the ruck.

It was as if a switch had been flicked after halftime, the Springbok scrum at first edging into superiority, then the second front-row unit going right on with the job, denying the Lions a stable platform, then winning the penalties that ensured the territory stats were swung right around.

But it was their lineout maul that provided the vital incision, a massive, twisting and rolling effort in the 60th minute opening a window for Faf de Klerk to nudge into the in-goal for Lukhano Am to score.

A tenuous 11-9 score-line suddenly became 18-9 and it was evident, even that far out, that there wasn’t another ten points in the Lions.

Earlier, it was a clever cross-field flip into space by Handre Pollard that created a perfect reverse angle run for Makazole Mapimpi to score the first try. Given what has happened in the first two matches, nobody could be surprised that both tries came from kicks. But unlike so much of the contestable kicking, these were clever, inventive kicks into space. Genuine scoring plays.

It was a similar kick that provided the Lions with their best chance of the match, Robbie Henshaw denied on halftime only by the arm of Siya Kolisi getting between ball and ground.

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Kolisi had complained on Friday that he hadn’t been shown due respect by last week’s referee, Nic Berry. He’s a World Cup-winning captain. He knows better than anybody that the way to earn respect is by doing exactly what he did; saving tries, carrying strongly and wrestling manfully at the breakdown.

The press conference, calculated to open the door to accusations of implied racism against Berry, was not Kolisi’s finest hour. But this may have been his best Test as a Springbok.

At halftime, the Lions must have felt that everything was on track, unfolding just as it had last week. But in the championship quarter, where the Springboks found another gear, the Lions engine began to splutter and misfire.

Adopting a strategy of playing in the air is only as good as the ability to secure the contestable ball. Haring forward, the Lions runners began knocking the ball forward in the contest, or slapping it as far back as from where it had been kicked. And receipt of the Springboks’ kicks increasingly became a lottery.

In a word, what the Lions lost was control. With the weight of possession turning against them, the penalties started to flow the same way, and captain Alan-Wyn Jones began asking questions of referee Ben O’Keeffe he already knew the answer to.

Whatever the nonsense that will be written and talked this week – and we all know there will be plenty – one truth is that it is now Warren Gatland who is under extreme pressure, having to decide on the personnel and tactics to win.

Short of options and time, Gatland’s pragmatic nature will ensure that there will be no radical, high risk approach. That’s a strategy that would almost guarantee the ball being jolted free somewhere way behind the advantage line, for Mapimpi, Am or Cheslin Kolbe to streak away.

Better handling alone will be enough to have the Lions right in the contest. But can they squeeze an extra ten percent out of their scrum? Or manufacture a wee bit of fractured play to bring Anthony Watson and Stuart Hogg into the game? Easier said than done.

With such a ridiculous amount of focus being placed on the match officials, O’Keeffe will be delighted how, just like Berry the week before, his performance had no bearing on the result. He was calm and assured throughout, and despite the players often showing a desire to act like school bullies, there was never doubt as to who was in charge.

The only time O’Keeffe’s knees buckled was in the awarding of Am’s try. In real time, it looked like Am scored, on replay it looked like Am scored, yet O’Keeffe kept asking for more angles.

That was only asking for trouble, as was his extended explanation to the players afterwards; just as he had done after deciding on a yellow card for Kolbe. Clear communication with players is always a good thing, but sometimes the best thing to do is to simply make the call and move the game along.

What this tells us is that, no matter how competent a referee is, the pressure of a Lions series is at another level altogether. The decision Romain Poite got wrong in 2017’s final Lions Test against the All Blacks was not whether Ken Owens was offside or accidentally offside, but to be gripped by the high stakes of the moment and call in his TMO, and cede control of the situation.

Single moments are elevated to such a level that officials, in their effort to get things right and not become the story, sacrifice the very attributes that got them to the top of their profession in the first place; feel for the game and application of common sense.

Courtney Lawes of British & Irish Lions

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Usually, a lot of that pressure is generated by the media, but in this case the catalyst – or should we say, culprit – was South Africa’s Rassie Erasmus.

The contents of his hour-long video targeting Berry don’t bear repeating here, but the implications may well represent a critical juncture for rugby.

Let’s be clear, Erasmus was not accusing anyone of racism. It isn’t even clear that Erasmus genuinely believes half of what he claimed. His sole intention was to spark a bush fire – by any means – to take media attention away from the failings of the first Test, keep coach Nienaber out of the spotlight, and to galvanise fans behind a ‘victimised’ team.

There can be no argument that he succeeded. And whether the Springboks finding their rhythm in the second half is down to Erasmus’ grandstanding or not, 27-9 is the only measurement that matters.

Or is it? Erasmus may not care what the rest of the world thinks about his actions, and that the ends justify the means. If he and Kolisi are happy to burn the goodwill and capital generated by the World Cup win, that’s their business.

But rugby is bigger than the self-interest of any coach, captain, director of rugby or waterboy. A central tenet of the sport, taught from the earliest age, is to show respect for the referee. No raising of the stakes, no World Cup final, no Lions tour, should ever undermine that principle or excuse any violation of it.

That the abuse of Berry is less about Berry’s failings as a referee than it is a convenient device to pursue another agenda, does not mitigate the action. It makes it worse.

It is to be hoped that the only reason World Rugby has yet to address the matter is because the last thing this series needs is more controversy. But come this time next week, win, lose or draw, Erasmus must be called to account for his actions, and heavily sanctioned.

Anything less risks a little piece of the soul of the sport being cut adrift, and reinforces a message that it is now ok to play the man and not the ball. It isn’t.

Rassie Erasmus

Rassie may have had the last laugh. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Despite the absence of one of the things that makes sevens rugby what it is – a noisy, pulsating crowd – the Olympic Games delivered in spades, in both the men’s and women’s divisions.

A gold medal won’t improve health or economic outcomes in covid-ravaged Fiji, however the symbolism behind their men’s victory, as it was in Rio, cannot be overstated. The quality of their play, too, entirely admirable.

Women’s winner New Zealand had their shaky moments, but saved their best for the final, shutting down a high-quality French team, and in the process, going one better than their Rio silver. But anyone wondering what to do with some spare cash might want to get on early for 2024; Fiji to complete the men’s and women’s double.

The tournament highlight however, came with Argentina eliminating the more highly fancied South Africa, en-route to a bronze medal.

Anyone who has played sevens knows what excruciatingly hard work it is. Covering a rugby pitch with just seven men requires the engine of a 747 and the heart of Phar Lap. Playing eleven of fourteen minutes with six men, and the final, tense play with just five, takes things into the realm of the ridiculous.

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In the Argentinian way, tears were shed; from the players on the pitch, from the injured comrades, and from the banished. It was a timely reminder that the very best of sport doesn’t always need crowds; it just needs skilled, committed athletes who are prepared to give their all for the cause.

Both Australian teams had their moments, but when a side like Fiji can afford to sit human wrecking ball Semi Radradra on the bench, the message is clear. By comparison to the other leading sides, men and women, Australia lacked players with size, power, pace and athletic ability.

Whoever picks up the reins for Australian sevens from here is faced with a substantial recruitment challenge.

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‘Sport will not survive this sort of escalating behaviour’: Why World Rugby needs to nip Rassie’s rant in the bud

As money flowed into sport codes the drive to become more professional began as to which stage of the professional evolution, and finances, determined the codes’ resources and support staff. Support staff too have become full-time professionals dedicated solely, in most teams, to the success of their club or team. This professionalism also led to […]

‘Sport will not survive this sort of escalating behaviour’: Why World Rugby needs to nip Rassie’s rant in the bud

As money flowed into sport codes the drive to become more professional began as to which stage of the professional evolution, and finances, determined the codes’ resources and support staff.

Support staff too have become full-time professionals dedicated solely, in most teams, to the success of their club or team. This professionalism also led to the development of the field of sports psychology in the early 1900s.

Coleman Griffith is considered the founder of sport psychology, as the first researcher to specialise in the area. He taught a course called ‘Psychology and Athletics’, and in 1925, opened the first research lab specialising in sport psychology topics.

But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that sport psychology began to emerge as an independent field of study. The International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) was founded, and the International Journal of Sport Psychology was created soon after.

America is the home of professional sports. It has a long history of embracing sport professionalism and also has a long history of embracing psychological care and support.

Unlike most nations with an Anglo history of stiff upper lip and soldiering on, they felt no stigma in getting psychological help.
This is probably why they’ve been using sports psychologists since the 1980s.

Obviously there have been great coaches who have utilised techniques from the field to get results, but usually the funds and philosophical view have not been there to the concept.

Focusing on the rugby codes, we can see the 1990s were where the professionalisation of the game has its foundation.

While rugby union has only been professional in Australia since 1995, league has been professional since 1908. That is, players were paid above the table for playing, and some received payments under the table.

But essentially, they were paid to play, being the definition of professional as opposed to being a close alignment to professionalism.

Although players were professional, most still had to work full- or part-time to support themselves, while also fulfilling their training and playing duties as part of contractual obligations.

We are currently seeing this same evolution in women’s sports, but the time frame is shorter.

The 1990s were a super decade for the rugby codes. 1995 brought about rugby professionalism and 1997 brought about the Super League War.

These events meant that players, coaches and staff could now become full-time professionals.

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Creating the race to become the best in your code led to an improvement of skills, a demand for innovation and a pushing of boundaries. It was mostly positive, but in a few cases it was causing scandals and a negative impact on the game.

Player skill levels and coaching innovation has seen the greatest impact of professionalisation of the codes.

This constant need to innovate saw industrious coaches search the world for best practices and ideas to gain an edge on the competition.

This has been crucial in creating success and gaining the much needed life blood of professional sport, corporate money.

Innovation and self-examination ultimately led to the embracing of sports psychologists and most recently, mind coaches and coach whisperers. The latter two are not necessarily qualified psychologists, but just glorified motivational speakers. One of my favourites, Denis Waitley, probably falls into that category.

Although most professional teams do not disclose the use of sports psychologists, we can see their influence in interviews with players and coaches.

There are things mentioned like ‘looking inside myself’ and ‘visualisation of my performance’, players wearing headphones to help get in the zone before games, or most recently, coaches and players refusing to mention an opposition by name or calling them New Zealand instead of the All Blacks.

For every good there is bad, every yin there is yang, debit there is a credit, so too with professionalism.

Professionalism has given us a game with bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled athletes and a game that does not exactly resemble the game of yesteryear.

It has also given the players and coaches much more pressure to succeed, and more free time than at any other time in its history.

When the game was semi-professional and amateur, most players had a job or career while they played.

John Eales


When not training or playing, they worked. This helped players mix with the community, develop life skills and develop mental toughness. To fit this all in required commitment, dedications, organisations and most of all, mental resilience to get it all done.

By being part of the community and getting feedback from your colleagues on Monday morning, it helped ground players and allowed them to understand their role in the community.

Players also tended to play for their team’s community, because they lived with and in the community.

The advent of professionalism, and in particular the use of sports psychology, has also had the yin-and-yang effect. Players now have the tools, self-belief, money, time and resources to achieve consistent results.

Unfortunately, they live in a bubble that self-perpetuates and reinforces those beliefs. They no longer need another job and only tend to mix with the community during team-sanctioned events.

This often creates a disparity between the community and players.

Another key difference between past players and current players is social media. It’s now with you wherever you go.

Because today’s players tend to be living in a bubble and are now career athletes, they tend to be aloof from the realities of the every day person’s life.

Their timetables are planned. So are meals, training, and commitments. Everything is laid out for them, and all they have to do is focus on training and recovery and follow the plans.

It is why, similar to military people, some professional athletes have trouble adjusting to life outside of the bubble.

Anthony Watson of the British & Irish Lions is tackled

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Because professional sport is about getting players to perform on the field, the mental focus tends to be solely on their role within the game.

More focus needs to be building up resilience and mental toughness and facing adversity rather then sport performance. You see this is not the case in some teams and players when they give up mid-match.

What we have seen in professional sport recently is the use of psychological deflection, mostly by coaches.

Deflection, by definition, is a method of changing the course of an object, an emotion, or thought from its original source. Psychological deflection is seen as a narcissistic abuse tactic used to control the mind and emotions of others.

Nevertheless, psychological deflection is not only a narcissistic tool but also a coping mechanism strategy.

Individuals who use it seek to mask their own impulses by denying their mistakes and projecting them on the people around them – mostly onto the referee, some other official and in some cases even the coach themselves.

In a coaching capacity it is used to take the pressure off the players, and usually put it onto the officials. Wayne Bennett, Ricky Stuart, Michael Cheika and others have been known to use this tactic.

Some are more successful than others. But what is alarming is the increasing use of this nature technique.

Previously, this was done in after-match comments and the occasional lead-up interview generally sticking within the confines of questioning 50-50 decisions.

But not anymore. Rassie Erasmus has changed that.

Rassie Erasmus

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

During an hour-long video release he has taken it beyond 50-50 decisions to questioning the character of the referee and even inferring something much more sinister.

My only hope is that this is nipped in the bud by World Rugby and a stern example is set, because if not sport will not survive this sort of escalating behaviour.

I understand professional sport is ruthless, but there is something refreshing hearing a coach say ‘while we may not have got the 50-50s at the end of the day we weren’t good enough and have to be better next time’.

It doesn’t take 62 minutes to say that.

I’m all for innovation and I enjoy watching the results of professionalisation of sport. Sometimes though the past has gems hidden in it that can benefit the future.

It is good to see a greater awareness of mental health issues, but the focus, like most health issues, appears to be on treatment rather than prevention. All people, not just professional athletes, need to develop and build resilience.

It is essential in sport but it is vital in life.

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