This should serve as a wake-up call. Unfortunately little will change in Erasmus’ standing among the South African rugby public. To the majority, it is just further evidence that there is a World Rugby-orchestrated conspiracy against the Springboks. This started with a few marginal calls going against them in the first Lions Test – conveniently ignoring all the 50-50 calls that went their way subsequently – continued with their lack of representation in the recent Player of the Year shortlists and now concludes with Erasmus’ punishment, which was soft if anything.
The excellent recent BBC Radio 4 Documentary, Poison, details how a bizarre and destructive conspiracy theory emerged and took a grip of the upper echelons of the African National Congress, the governing body of South Africa since 1994.
Disgraced former president Jacob Zuma and other ANC allies are convinced shadowy forces are out to poison him, usually raising these plots whenever allegations of corruption are raised against them. While there were examples of the apartheid state using poison to assassinate opposition figures, there is next to no medical evidence to suggest this practise has continued.
It does not take a huge leap to see how this same paranoid mindset has taken root among the Springboks and their supporters. Here’s a headline from one South African rugby website leading into their 30-15 victory against Scotland: “Boks will have 16 men to beat on Saturday”, promoting a worryingly widespread idea that neutral referees are inherently biased against them.
If a fish rots from the head then it is clear that it is Erasmus, the director of rugby, chief waterboy and puppetmaster, who is driving much of this agenda. At no point in his disciplinary hearing does he express any contrition or regret about his actions. If it helped the Springboks win the Lions series, then so be it, never mind an innocent official and all notions of respect were thrown under the bus.
If you expect Jurie Roux, the South African Rugby Union chief executive, to take a hard line against Erasmus then you do not know who really runs South African rugby. Bill Sweeney, the RFU chief executive, will undoubtedly sympathise.
Expect Erasmus’ punishment to be used as rocket fuel when the Springboks run out at Twickenham on Saturday in the first meeting of the sides since the World Cup final in Yokohama. Unfortunately, the feelgood factor has long since dissipated. The message of hope has now been replaced by one of cynicism and conspiracy.