One thing I have learned in many years of rugby journalism is that you can’t fight the game’s officialdom. In fact, screaming about injustice is pretty much like farting against thunder.
Referees side with referees but, more importantly, governing bodies side with referees. They very seldom break ranks.
Remember “Justice 4 Bakkies” and the armbands the Boks wore during the third Test against the British and Irish Lions in 2009 to protest the suspension of bruising lock Bakkies Botha?
Botha’s sin was cleaning out Adam Jones at a ruck so hard that the Lions prop suffered a dislocated shoulder. Jones himself called it fair play and expressed surprise that Bakkies copped a two-week suspension.
On reflection the Boks should have let the Lions do the talking on their behalf.
Not only did those armbands saddle the South African Rugby Union and players with fines, but a so-called “independent committee” chastised them to the point of possible suspension from the 2011 World Cup being a talking point. Mercifully “legal technicalities” stood in the way of a severe sanction.
I was reminded of all that following the none-too-subtle digs at World Rugby from the Bok camp this past week in the wake of Owen Farrell’s unpunished tackle on André Esterhuizen at Twickenham.
Anyone with basic knowledge of the laws the game will tell you that a penalty should have been awarded to give Handré Pollard a shot at clinching the Test.
The opposite view has also been expressed by former international players, but I doubt they’re being honest. The honesty should come from World Rugby, who have greeted the fallout with a deafening silence. No doubt this adds to the prevailing sense of injustice, which the Boks are quite entitled to feel.
Nonetheless, the best advice one can offer them is to build a bridge and get over it. Rather take out the frustration on additional lineout drills and reflect on why so many opportunities were squandered.
Officialdom doesn’t have the sense of humour to appreciate that little video in which Erasmus teaches Esterhuizen how to tackle like Farrell. In fact, some blazer in a high office has probably taken offence and believes it is propaganda from inside the heart of the South African camp.
What the Boks need now is mental fortitude. Losing a Test in that way hurts. Particularly so if played at Twickenham. But what we don’t want is for that sense of injustice to spill over into poor discipline.
Nigel Owens is a more experienced and better referee than Angus Gardner, so whoever ‘Farrell-tackles’ in Paris on Saturday will walk the plank. If it happens to be one of our guys, South Africans will be screaming injustice and experts will express their dismay at the lack of consistency in the game.
South Africans, in a perverse sort of way, enjoy that because we have been the perpetrators of some famous incidents of foul play. Remember Johan le Roux biting Sean Fitzpatrick’s ear? And Bakkies, whether having suffered an injustice or not against the Lions in 2009, could hardly lay claim to angelic status.
It feels good to be able to take the moral high ground, doesn’t it? And, some friends and colleagues have told me, Farrell would have been hung, drawn and quartered had he been a Springbok.
Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter because justice isn’t always served in rugby’s disciplinary processes. We’ve seen that movie often enough to be able to know that a stubborn refusal to accept our fate can make things worse than they already are.