Asking most modern-day sports coaches to stop spinning is a bit like asking a narcissist to stop looking in the mirror. It ain’t going to happen.
The dark arts don’t always work out as intended, mind.
South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus this week unleashed a comment suggesting the Lions had compromised the integrity of the game with their remarks about television match official Marius Jonker before the first Test.
Before that match, the tourists were said to be less than impressed with the appointment of Jonker — a local official whose son plays for the Sharks — after New Zealand’s Brendon Pickerill withdrew because of pandemic-related travel issues.
Despite the Lions’ fears the South African might favour the hosts, a number of tight calls went the way of Warren Gatland’s team.
Read more : Erasmus points finger at Lions star
So Erasmus evidently felt it was time to lob a few words on the officials into the mix himself.
“In the past we’ve found that when we talk in the media too much it normally backfires for us,” he said.
“Warren talked last week about Marius Jonker, Warren is a great guy, I’ll tell you straight up, I always enjoy his company, he’s a good man.
“But it was weird for me that people would question Marius’ integrity. Say this weekend, (referee) Ben O’Keefe is a New Zealander and Warren is also a New Zealander, we would never say that. It wouldn’t sit well.
“The whole integrity of the game would be questioned, and we would never do that.”
So, Erasmus would never point out that Ben O’Keeffe is a New Zealander and Gatland is a Kiwi as well. Except in saying he’d never say point that out, he, sort of, well, he did point it out.
Are you keeping up with this stuff?
Modern sports coaches and all that.
Maybe the late, great world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston had the right idea years ago when he cut through all the chat about choosing a referee for a title bout with Floyd Patterson by saying: “It don’t matter as long as he can count up to 10.”
Is such an approach likely at any point in this series between South Africa and the Lions?
Don’t bank on it.
What’s the backstory of the man in charge of the second Test then?
Ben O’Keeffe is indeed a Kiwi, from Auckland.
The 32-year-old took up refereeing at the age of 19 and was the youngest official at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. In the same year, he spoke about his career away from rugby, saying: “A lot of people have opinions about the way referees can see and I’m pretty qualified as well to tell those people how their vision is.
“I’m an ophthalmologist. I’ve been lucky enough to balance both careers over the last couple of years as being a professional referee has become a full-time commitment.”
Dr O’Keeffe co-founded oDocs Eye Care.
He refereed the Super Rugby Aotearoa final between the Crusaders and the Chiefs in May and was adjudged to have done a ‘pretty good job’, notwithstanding that some queried his decision not to award a penalty try to the Chiefs at one point.
More recently he was in the news after his decision to send off Australia’s Marika Koroibete for a fifth-minute challenge on France captain Anthony Jelonch sparked a worldwide debate about the call’s merits.
The reaction of Jelonch, who held his face and flung himself to the ground in the aftermath, drew widespread criticism.
Former New Zealand fly half Andrew Mehrtens was among those who took issue with the decision to point Koroibete to the sidelines, branding the call “an absolute travesty”.
A disciplinary panel subsequently failed to uphold the red card, with Koroibete escaping a ban.
Last year, O’Keeffe was again in the news after the England-Wales game at Twickenham, when he sent off Manu Tuilagi after an illegal hit on George North, reducing England to 13 men at the time, with Ellis Genge having already been binned.
England Eddie Jones hit out after the game with criticism that was viewed as an attack on O’Keeffe, saying: “ “That was a good tough win against quality opposition, but at the end it was 16 against 13.”
Asked to explain who the 16th man was, Jones said: “You work it out.”
Manu Tuilagi of England is shown a red card by referee Ben O’Keeffe
Jones was subsequently carpeted by his employers, with RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney apologising on behalf of both the coach and the English union.
“Eddie and the RFU regret any implication that Ben O’Keeffe was biased in his decision making,” said Sweeney.
Jones later said he planned to speak to O’Keeffe privately, admitting: “It was inappropriate, the way I expressed my disappointment.
“The next time I see him, I will have a chat to him. He’s a good young fellow.”
To have climbed so high as a referee at such a young age underlines how well thought of O’Keeffe is in official circles.
This week, he will be taking charge of the biggest game of his career so far.
He will doubtless hope the encounter passes without major incident.
But rare is the top-level match that pans out that way nowadays.
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