Warren Gatland has been left furious before the British & Irish Lions’ first Test against the Springboks on Saturday after being told the South African Marius Jonker has been appointed as the Television Match Official for the series.
Gatland is said to be raging there was no neutral alternative available for such a high-profile event after the original TMO – New Zealand’s Brendon Pickerill – withdrew due to pandemic-related travel disruption. The Lions are also understood to be astonished they were informed only on Wednesday about the appointment.
Jonker was the TMO for the Lions’ sole previous defeat of the tour – by South Africa A – and, in consultation with the referee Jaco Peyper, opted against sending off Faf de Klerk for a dangerous tackle on Josh Navidi.
Gatland was convinced a red card was warranted and was planning to seek clarification over the decision. “I can’t understand where the comments were that there was no contact to the head,” Gatland said last week. “Someone was watching a different picture to me. I thought it looked reckless. No arms and he’s hit the arm first and then the shoulder, but there’s definitely head on head contact.”
Jonker – whose son Rynhardt plays for the Sharks with a number of Springboks – will be familiar to England supporters after he disallowed a late Sam Underhill try in their narrow defeat by New Zealand in November 2018. Courtney Lawes, who will start for the Lions against South Africa at blindside flanker, was adjudged to be offside in the buildup, denying Eddie Jones’s side a famous win.
Gatland has already expressed his concern that a player in the sin-bin or being sent off could play a significant part in deciding the outcome of the Tests and was due to meet with Saturday’s match referee Nic Berry on Thursday.
In 2017 a red card worked in the Lions’ favour when Sonny Bill Williams was sent off for a dangerous tackle on Anthony Watson in the second Test in Wellington, which the touring side went on to narrowly win and square the series. Speaking on Wednesday after he named his XV, Gatland said: “The last thing that we want from a Lions perspective is a Test match decided on someone making a really poor decision – going in with a shoulder, a tackle too high. A yellow card or sent off.”
World Rugby, which appoints the match officials for all Tests, has insisted the contingency plan was always a local alternative and pointed to “home” TMOs during last year’s Rugby Championship. Given the magnitude of the Lions’ first Test against South Africa for 12 years, however, and its billing as the biggest match of the year to date, Gatland has been left perplexed by the decision.
Meanwhile, Rassie Erasmus will be monitored by Berry and his officials if he continues to perform water-carrying duties against the Lions. World Rugby’s former head of referees, Alain Rolland, has said South Africa’s director of rugby should not be allowed to act as a water carrier, thereby being able to enter the pitch and pass messages to his players.
It is understood that World Rugby legislation only states head coaches cannot be pitchside, and Covid regulations allow for more water carriers. It is in the remit of the match officials to monitor water carriers’ conduct, however. Gatland had picked up on the issue after Erasmus – who was head coach for the Springboks’ 2019 World Cup triumph – performed the role in the defeat by South Africa A but World Rugby regulations only dictate head coaches cannot do so.
Meanwhile, the Lions centre Elliot Daly has revealed how he has learned to trust his instincts again after a loss of form earlier this year. Daly has been named to start his first Test at outside-centre since November 2016 on Saturday, having lost his England place four months ago. Daly came through the ranks at Wasps as a dazzling No 13 but has predominantly been employed by Jones at either wing or full-back.
He also started all three Lions Tests against New Zealand on the wing but has found a new lease of life back in midfield this season with Saracens.
“At the start of the Six Nations I was probably thinking about what I needed to do next rather than staying in the moment and what I need to do now,” said Daly. “Being more instinctive with my play rather than [just] settling into a system. At the start of the Six Nations I was probably too process-based rather than being instinctive and just doing what I see on the pitch. Usually on a rugby pitch your first thought is the right one.
“It’s about doing that and executing under pressure. Eddie says it to me all the time. When I don’t think and just do the first action that comes into my head then you can make anything work and 90% of the time it’s going to be the right decision.”