The British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa has fired up a cesspool of spiteful discontent and bickering in traditional as well as social media.
A British and Irish Lions tour will always be competitive, both on and off the field. This tour though has been the catalyst of many nasty interactions. Those involved have ranged from team management to the formal media and keyboard warriors around the world.
British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa- A Media Manager’s nightmare
There are many reasons why this tour has become such an acrimonious affair. None of them can be regarded as the main reason. All of the contributing issues have stitched together a perfect storm of discontent and ill-feeling. “That” video was the final (and biggest) spark that lit an almighty inferno.
Here are a few pointers that helped light that fire.
The growth of social media
Social media platforms have grown at a rapid pace. This is especially true during the current pandemic. Many more people have started to rely on social media for news, updates and entertainment. The British and Irish Lions tour is a high-profile event and the 2021 tour could be viewed as the most dissected rugby tour in social media history.
Even before “that video” was released, fans of both teams have been roasting each other on social media. Some would like to call it “banter”, but most of it has been pure vitriol.
The level of “whataboutery” has been extraordinary. What about this tackle? What about that bite? What about that leg-lift? Most of these opinions have been based on grainy still pictures and not fact and multiple camera angles.
The Rassie Erasmus video – not an original thought
This British and Irish Lions tour will always be defined by Erasmus’s analytical video dissection of referee Nic Berry’s officiating in the first Test. Erasmus and SA Rugby will face an independent hearing for bringing the game into disrepute. We don’t know what their defence will be, but one thing is for certain. Erasmus was not the first Head Coach/Director of Rugby to openly criticize a referee’s decisions using visuals. The precedent was set sixteen years ago, by one of Erasmus’s fiercest critics of the last week. Sir Clive Woodward had his time to shine back in 2005 during the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.
The Erasmus video by far exceeds what Woodward did. The prickly pear that World Rugby might need to consider is that the charge against Erasmus is under the same “bringing the game into disrepute” charge for questioning a referee’s performance that Woodward was subject to the time. Woodward faced no sanction and that becomes precedent.
To add further fuel to the social media meltdown, Erasmus’s lawyer said on Saturday that Erasmus sent the now infamous video to World Rugby and referee Nic Berry. The claim is that the leak came from World Rugby. Who knows what to believe?
British Media: Prompted insinuations
Warren Gatland can rightly claim that he has not stated anything in the media or on social media that can be regarded as controversial. He has gone as far as to say that he is disappointed that World Rugby has drawn him into the whole affair. At face value, he is correct. There is one nagging thought though. The British media has been good at wording statements that are non-commital or inaccurate. Gatland was “reportedly furious” at the appointment of Marius Jonker as the TMO for the series. This was after the original TMO, New Zealander Brendon Pickerill, couldn’t make it due to Covid-19 travel disruptions. Who reported this if not the British media? The most likely source could be found within the British and Irish Lions tour party. Again, this is nothing new.
There is a narrative that Erasmus “demanded” a second South Africa “A” game against the Lions. He certainly did ask for the game, but demanded is stretching the truth a bit too far. Erasmus asked, his request was declined and that decision was accepted. Who spread the narrative of demands being made and why? World Rugby was correct in calling out both parties. This is possibly the only thing that they got right.
There were also several examples of ex-coaches lambasting the Springboks for their style of play. This helped nobody and further fueled the fire on social media.
An already riled-up rugby audience lapped everything the media presented as the truth. Enter social media meltdown stage right.
World Rugby: The real villain
Rassie Erasmus will forever be remembered as the evil clown of the piece. The reality is that World Rugby has failed the game yet again and it is bigger than the British and Irish Lions tour. We can use this Lions tour to highlight some problematic areas.
Inconsistent application of discipline
The aftermath of the second Test was confusion amongst fans of both teams. What deserves a citing and what does not? There was enough early evidence to cite players from both teams. Kyle Synckler is probably still wondering how he was the only player singled out. Based on just about no evidence. The high tackle laws are not consistently applied and have become a lottery. Protecting players will always be a priority, but the inconsistencies we have witnessed hint that nobody really knows what they are doing, which angers the game’s primary asset. The fans.
A defensive mindset
Hiding away behind an antiquated “bringing the game into disrepute” clause is a defensive mindset. It is a noble thought, but not much more. There is always only one winner. World Rugby. That clause is certainly not a proactive tool to resolve issues. It is a tool of fear to silence dissent. It harks back to the amateur era when Rugby Union players were banned for switching codes to Rugby League and receiving payment for displaying their talent.
There is also a question of where does bringing the game into disrepute start and where does it end? Let’s face it. They are largely invisible when players are found guilty of civil offenses such as drunk and disorderly behaviour or gender-based violence and get a slap on the wrist. The trick here is that World Rugby does not understand is that the perception is that rugby players are viewed in a different light to normal citizens when it comes to facing the law. That is certainly bringing the game into disrepute.
What will come of the charge against Erasmus?
Rassie Erasmus’s social media outburst will be rewarded with a fine and probably a sideline ban for a few games. So no more waterboy duties for a while. Will that change anything? No. World Rugby will continue to protect its self-managed image at all costs and not change anything. Even if that cost is the general rugby understanding of the game. Serious changes need to be made in terms of how players and staff behave on social media and in front of the formal media. That cannot come through the autocratic application of “disrepute” charges. Fix the internal communications channels within World Rugby. If those work for everybody, coaches would not need to drop hints to the media or post a very direct and exposing video.
The laws also need to be a lot clearer of what constitutes foul play and what does not. The inconsistencies in applying laws have rightfully angered the game’s fan base.
Rugby deserves better, but World Rugby is too focused on brand integrity. Rather focus on the fans and your own processes and the rest will follow.
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