The Springboks have been all fire and brimstone this week but, almost mercifully, the time has now arrived to do their talking on the field, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
It has to be said that the buildup to Saturday’s second battle between the Boks and British & Irish Lions must go down as one of the most controversial Test weeks which has been filled with extraordinary talking points.
Led by Rassie Erasmus, the Boks have been on the offensive since last Sunday, expressing dissatisfaction with officiating inconsistencies and World Rugby’s laboured referee review process, culminating with an unprecedented hour-long Erasmus video.
In the video, Erasmus insisted he was acting independently in releasing such a video, but on Friday it was clear that the Springboks were united in their views.
At a virtual media briefing on the eve of the second Test, Siya Kolisi and Mzwandile Stick held nothing back.
The Bok captain echoed the views of Erasmus in suggesting he went disrespectfully unheard by the referee, while Stick emphatically stated that it was in fact Lions coach Warren Gatland who had shattered the integrity of the tour when he questioned the appointment of TMO Marius Jonker in the first Test week.
It’s been almost unbelievable stuff at times.
For a Springbok side that has leaned almost exclusively towards diplomacy in media dealings for years on end, this was a change in strategy as outlandish as it was deliberate.
Instead of just accepting the hard knocks of modern-day sport where every referee decision is closely analysed, the Boks have taken a stand to insist that the latest officiating discrepancies were just not good enough, and to call for changes to subjective interpretations as well as certain perceptions towards the Springboks.
The public proclamations have been far more blatant than the Springboks’ strategy at the World Cup where they had designated roles to certain players in terms of the way they dealt with the referees, while each official’s quirks were studied in depth.
For whatever reason – and there are sure to be many – Erasmus and the Boks have decided that quietly dealing with their frustrations behind closed doors is no longer the approach to take.
What can’t be denied is that the actual on-field rugby has largely become an afterthought this week. Indeed, most of the column inches in media coverage has revolved around the reaction and response to the Springboks’ outcry.
There has been very little written about the rugby or performances as other distractive subjects have taken precedence, which could well be part of the ploy.
A massive spotlight will also be on the officials in Saturday’s second Test, who have the most remarkable responsibility to ensure questionable decisions don’t once again become the primary talking point after this encounter.
Plenty will also be read into the performance of the Springboks. It’s clear that they took the approach of the officials personally last Saturday, and the grander plan may be for this all to feed into a ferocious backlash at Cape Town Stadium.
If the Boks can produce a performance of ferocity that matches some of the no-holds-barred proclamations in the media this week, they will surely level the series at 1-1.
However, a defeat would not only wrap up the series with one game to spare, but could also see the moral high ground slipping from under their feet.
Rightly or wrongly, the Boks have made a massive statement off the field this week, and refused to take a backward step.
But now the real job is at hand. This Saturday’s performance will be all about ensuring those emotions don’t spill over into overzealousness, and that it rather fuels an intensity and accuracy that the Lions cannot match.