The Scottish Mail on Sunday
JASON WHITE’S LIONS VERDICT
South African TMO Jonker lets Gatland’s men off the hook with two massive calls
GIVEN the controversy which surrounded his appointment, Marius Jonker would surely have been hoping for a quiet day at the office as the TMO for yesterday’s first Test. Warren Gatland made it clear in the build-up just what he thought of a South African official being involved in a match between the Springboks and the Lions.
Part of his anger stemmed directly from Jonker’s involvement as the TMO in the match against South Africa ‘A’ earlier in the tour, when Gatland felt Faf de Klerk should have been sent off for a tackle on Josh Navidi.
More than anything, though, Gatland would just have been unhappy that a native South African was put in a position to influence this opening Test match — and I believe he was right to raise the issue.
I certainly wouldn’t have been happy either. Yet, remarkably, Jonker might just end up on Gatland’s Christmas card list later this year.
He let the Lions off the hook with two huge calls in the second half, both of which had me scratching my head.
Firstly, the decision to rule out Willie le Roux’s try. Initially, the on-field decision from the referee Nic Berry was that the try should stand.
By consulting the TMO, he was asking if there was any clear and definitive evidence in the build-up as to why it should be ruled out. Plainly, I didn’t see anything.
There was no forward pass, and Le Roux was not offside as he gave chase to Lukhanyo Am’s kick. He was behind Am’s foot at the point of contact. Or, at worst, he was level.
I was watching the game with some friends and, when they were showing the replays on TV, we all looked at each other and said: ‘That’s a try’. I was shocked when Jonker ruled it out.
As the game entered the final 15 minutes, Hamish Watson was also extremely fortunate not to be sent to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle on Le Roux.
The more and more they pored over the replays, the more Watson must have had his heart in his mouth. It looked for all the world that he would be yellow-carded.
Listen, I’m a massive fan of Hamish and have long championed him to be part of this Lions tour. Regular readers of this column will testify to that.
But the reality is that you just can’t make tackles like that. He got hold of Le Roux by the legs, lifted him well above horizontal and dropped him really clumsily.
I fully expected it to be a yellow card. Yet, somehow, Jonker did not deem it to be worthy of further punishment. Another strange call.
In a way, I actually feel sorry for him. World Rugby shouldn’t have put him in this position, where his impartiality is being so openly questioned.
On one hand, he’s a native South African and wants the Boks to win. On the other hand, he goes too far the other way and favours the Lions after Gatland shone the pre-match spotlight on him.
It’s awkward. I know there are Covid complications which led to the withdrawal of the original TMO — New Zealand’s Brendon Pickerill — but surely there has to be a better, more neutral solution?
South Africa also had another try ruled out in the final 10 minutes after a very unfortunate knock-on by Cheslin Kolbe in the build-up.
So, when you couple that with the strange calls from Jonker around Le Roux’s non-try and the reluctance to send Watson to the sin bin, the Lions can count themselves lucky.
However, you also have to give them enormous credit for how they fought their way back into the match after what was a scrappy opening first 40 minutes.
In a way, the Lions were probably fortunate to be only 12-3 down at the break. They had been outplayed in near enough every area.
The first half was a classic arm wrestle. There wasn’t a great deal of rugby played by either team, something which probably suited South Africa more. But the Lions were much smarter in how they went about things after the break. Ali Price set the tone early and his box-kicking was really on the money at times.
That was part of a kicking game which became more prevalent for the Lions as the game wore on. They ruled the skies and definitely had the aerial advantage over the Boks.
I like the dynamic of Price starting the game with the energy and tempo he brings, with Conor Murray then coming off the bench just to see us over the line in the final 20 minutes.
Duhan van der Merwe really grew into the action as well and I’m sure that will be one of the proudest days of his career, to go back to South Africa and beat the Boks in a Test match.
Likewise Stuart Hogg. After the agony of missing out on the Test side in 2013 and 2017, the Scotland skipper can be proud of his performance yesterday.
But there’s no doubt they will need to raise their game once again for next week. I have a feeling the Boks will unleash hell on them.
The world champions will have had their pride dented yesterday. A wounded animal, they will respond with thunderous physicality in true South African style.
If I’m calling it now, I have a sneaky suspicion they might just edge it in the second Test. They are far better than what they showed yesterday.
Already, with so little between the teams, this tour feels like it’s destined to be poised at 1-1 heading into the final Test.
Never mind the potential whitewash. That’s the easy route. It’s the drama and nerve-shredding excitement we really want, isn’t it?