SCOTLAND head coach Gregor Townsend says that the only concern he has about the sanctions imposed on Rassie Erasmus by World Rugby on Wednesday night is that it took the global governing body so long to punish the South African Director of Rugby for his antics during last summer’s Lions tour.
He has also accused Erasmus of attempting a “character assassination” on an unnamed Scotland player during last Saturday’s Autumn Test Series clash at Murrayfield, and believes that attempting to intimidate players and match officials has become a worryingly common strategy in the modern game.
“I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, but someone showed me a video of him making comments about one of our players, a character assassination or sledging or whatever,” revealed Townsend. “That’s not the role of coaches; it’s not the role of anybody on the sidelines to be doing that.
“If we want our sport to go down a different route then we allow these things to happen. That was really disappointing to see, and I know it wasn’t the only incident over the weekend, over that game.”
Erasmus has been banned from all rugby activities for two months and suspended from all match-day activities until September, having been found guilty of six charges, including threatening referee Nic Berry during last summer’s Lions tour.
The punishment was announced on Wednesday meaning that Erasmus was allowed to be pitch-side in his now customary role as the Springbok team’s ‘water boy’ at Murrayfield last weekend. It is a tactic he first adopted during the Lions tour. While head coaches are banned from performing the role and entering the field of play to impart messages directly to players, there is nothing in the rules to stop a Director of Rugby doing it.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland pointed out at the time that there had been times when Erasmus was on the pitch speaking to players without carrying any water after the Lions match against a Springbok ‘A’ side in the lead-up to the first Test.
Then, after South Africa had lost the first Test of the series, Erasmus took his campaign to influence the way the games were being officiated a step further when he produced 62-minute long video monologue in which he dissected the performance of Berry, focussing on decisions which had gone against his team, and argued that Siya Kolisi, South Africa’s first black captain, was not shown the same respect by the match officials as opposite number Alun Wyn Jones. Erasmus claimed that the video had not been made for public distribution but this was rejected by World Rugby’s disciplinary panel.
As well as the suspensions, Erasmus has also been ordered by World Rugby to apologise to the match officials involved, and has been warned over his future conduct. South Africa Rugby has been fined £20,000 for failing to ensure that their employee complied with World Rugby’s code of conduct. Both parties have stated that they will appeal the verdicts.
“I think that was a real bad episode for our game,” said Townsend, who was an assistant coach during the Lions tour. “I was there at the time, so I experienced what was going on, and I later spoke to Nic Berry about it and he went through a real tough time, and so did his family.
“That was a real shame and a pity that these things can happen in our sport. I don’t think it could have been allowed to continue.
“Those antics … we can’t fall into that trap of winning at all costs and putting pressure on individuals.
“It has been a while for that decision to come,” he added. “That would be my only frustration, that it has taken so long to come to this decision.”
Townsend added that he hopes the strong – if overdue – stance taken by World Rugby on Wednesday will be the catalyst for a tougher line generally against backroom staff who overstep the mark.
“[It was] four months too late,” said Townsend, when asked if it was frustrating that Erasmus was not suspended before the Scotland versus South Africa game. “I remember having to go to two hearings for Zander [Fagerson] when he got banned in the Six Nations. I feel that whatever happens around a game, whether it’s a player or coach or someone related to the game like a physio, decisions have to be made more quickly.
“We got to the decision that was announced yesterday, but for me this is the tip of the iceberg,” he added. “We’ve seen a lot of incidents where people on the sidelines are trying to intimidate players and officials. Going onto the field of play as well to either coach their team or intimidate officials on the field. It’s got to stop.
“I would urge World Rugby to make further changes. Why do we need coaches on the sidelines? If they are on the sidelines they have to live up to certain behaviours and values that we pride in our game, which sadly I felt over the summer and since then have been lost.”
It has been alleged that Erasmus has a reputation among referees for the kind of behaviour which got him into his current predicament, and was even reprimanded by World Rugby for emailing Australian referee Angus Gardner and ringing him early in the morning following South Africa’s 32-19 defeat away to Argentina during the 2018 Rugby Championship.
Gardner refereed South Africa for the first time since that incident in last Saturday’s match at Murrayfield.