'I didn't feel respected at all': South Africa's Siya Kolisi hits out at first Lions Test refereeing

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Siya Kolisi the South Africa Springboks captain, looks dejected after their defeat during the 1st Test match between the South Africa Springboks and the British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on July 24, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa - Getty Images Europe
Siya Kolisi the South Africa Springboks captain, looks dejected after their defeat during the 1st Test match between the South Africa Springboks and the British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on July 24, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa - Getty Images Europe

South Africa captain Siya Kolisi claimed he was disrespected by referee Nic Berry as the British and Irish Lions were accused of “destroying the dignity” of the series by the increasingly enraged Springboks.

The explosive claims build upon the hour-long monologue released by Springbok director of rugby Rassie Erasmus in which he subjected Berry, the referee in the first Test defeat to the Lions, to searing criticism. That drew a fierce response from Rugby Australia which said Erasmus’ claims were “unacceptable” and “cannot be tolerated”.

The Lions, meanwhile, were trying to block out what forwards coach Robin McBryde describes as a “sideshow” ahead of the second Test and expressed confidence that today’s referee Ben O’Keefe would be “professional” enough to be swayed by Springboks’ outbursts.

With World Rugby doing nothing more than “noting” Erasmus’ unprecedented attack on Berry, the fans were flamed in another incendiary press conference. Kolisi, who captained the Springboks to victory at the World Cup, doubled down on Erasmus’ claims that he was afforded less respect than Lions skipper Alun Wyn Jones.

“I didn't feel respected at all,” Kolisi said. “I didn't feel I was given a fair opportunity. I'm looking forward to a new game and a new referee. I think Ben will give a fair opportunity for both captains and that's all we're asking.

Asked to provide examples of Berry’s disrespect, Kolisi said: “Did you watch the video? Watch that and then we can chat afterwards. I don’t really want to get into it to be honest. I don’t want to get involved in that, I just didn’t feel I was given the same access to the referee.

“If you watch the game again you’ll definitely be able to see. But it’s already happened, I don’t want to speak too much about it, it’s not going to change anything.”

Kolisi and the Springboks are threatening to burn all the goodwill they generated from their World Cup triumph with their highly personal attacks on a referee. South Africa, however, seemed more concerned with circling the wagons around Erasmus, who has threatened to step down for the remainder of the series.

Assistant coach Mzwandile Stick unconvincingly tried to shift the blame on the Lions for questioning the appointment of South African Marius Jonker as television match official once the original TMO, Brendon Pickerill, pulled out. “Without going deep on it, let’s go on the build-up to the first game,” Stick said.

“Firstly the integrity of World Rugby was challenged by another human being where Marius Jonker was appointed TMO then someone on the other side was asking World Rugby and challenging them about the decision they made. Everyone knows we are living in a pandemic time, we are living during Covid and the other gentleman that was supposed to be the TMO because of the Covid protocols he couldn’t travel to South Africa.

"So if Rassie got into trouble for what he said on social media I think 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.”

Even if World Rugby has astonishingly not yet sought to publicly defend their official, Rugby Australia was happy to pick up the baton, noting it was “dismayed” and “concerned” by Erasmus’s video which raised 26 possible errors by Berry’s officiating team. Andy Marinos, Rugby Australia’s chief executive, said that he was concerned for Berry’s mental health after being subjected to a very public takedown. “As a highly regarded and respected international referee appointed by World Rugby, the attack on Nic’s integrity, character and reputation is unacceptable,” he said.

“We will continue to provide support to Nic at this time, as both his physical and mental wellbeing remains a priority for us.” Part of Erasmus’ motivation appears to be to influence the officials this weekend after he felt the Lions got the upper hand in the first Test.

However, McBryde insists that O’Keeffe will not be swayed by the Boks’ attempts at mind games. “No, I don’t think so,” McBryde said. “He is professional enough. That’s just a sideshow. We had a positive discussion with the referee.”

South Africa have drawn a false equivalence - criticism of Owen Farrell has shown it's about being a good captain

By Daniel Schofield

Does anyone remember the short-lived “Justice 4 Bakkies” campaign?

For those whose memories do not stretch back to the second Test of the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa, Springboks lock Bakkies Botha illegally cleared prop Adam Jones out of a ruck, dislocating his shoulder and ending his series. Botha received a two-week ban for his actions, which led to the Springboks players taking to the field for the field with armbands labelled “Justice 4 Bakkies” in the most misjudged protest since the Michael Jackson isn’t so bad movement.

By this context, the actions of the Springboks management over the past week almost seem rational. By any other standards, they would seem dangerous bordering on deranged.

South Africa have drawn a false equivalence - criticism of Owen Farrell has shown it's about being a good captain - GETTY IMAGES
South Africa have drawn a false equivalence - criticism of Owen Farrell has shown it's about being a good captain - GETTY IMAGES

When Siya Kolisi, the Springboks first black captain, lifted the World Cup in 2019, it provided rugby with one of its defining images and built an enormous store of goodwill. That is now being incinerated. Witness Rugby Australia’s statement, deploring Rassie Erasmus’ unprecedented attack on referee Nic Berry as “unacceptable”.

To the Springboks and the vast majority of their supporters, they are the victims in all this. South Africa assistant coach Mzwandile Stick again tried to shift all the blame on to the Lions for this, as if Erasmus had no other option but to throw Berry under the bus.

The Lions’ sins, such as they are, were for Gatland to seek clarification over what he saw as a red-card high tackle by Faf de Klerk. This was in response to a question in a press conference. The Lions then expressed their frustration at World Rugby for failing to have a contingency in place when Brendon Pickerill pulled out as the television match official for the Test series. Bringing in Marius Jonker, a South African, was not a good look. Even Erasmus agreed that it was “baffled” by the appointment. However the Lions anger was directed at World Rugby rather than Jonker.

To compare the Lions actions to that of Erasmus with his drip drip feed on social media before what was a full-scale waterboarding of Berry is false equivalence. Even Kolisi is at risk of spurning his reputation as a statesman of the sport by insinuating that Berry was disrespecting him. Managing a referee is a skill. You only have to see Pascal Gauzere's treatment of Owen Farrell in England’s Six Nations defeat to Wales to realise this.

In my view, two big decisions went against the Springboks in the first Test. Hamish Watson should have been sin-binned for a spear tackle and there was probably not enough evidence to overturn the award of the Willie Le Roux true. Does this amount to a conspiracy? Not by the least. Nearly every tight rugby match will come down to a handful of big calls. The Lions analysts could easily draw up a list of 20 plus decisions that went against them as Erasmus has done.

Maybe the Springboks don’t care about the global goodwill they have accrued. If winning the series is all that matters then so be it, however World Rugby should throw an entire library of books at them when they eventually get their bottoms into gear.

Perhaps the saddest element to this is that this tour is being staged against the odds of the Covid-19 third wave in South Africa. It is a remarkable achievement by both sets of administrators. All the cooperation that went into getting the series underway is being thrown away as the Springboks seek the smallest hill to die on since Botha dislocated Jones’ shoulder.