British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has reportedly been left fuming ahead of the first Test against the Springboks on Saturday after Covid-19 travel restrictions meant that there was a change of the television match official (TMO) for the game.
The first Test match at Cape Town Stadium kicks off at 6 pm with Nic Berry of Australia as the referee.
Several British media outlets have reported that Gatland is furious at the fact that New Zealand referee Brendan Pickerill could not travel to South Africa to be the TMO for the three-Test series and has been replaced by local referee Marius Jonker.
Jonker is highly rated in the international refereeing circles and is seen as one of the top international television match officials.
According to the reports, Gatland was only told about the switch on Wednesday and was apparently fuming that there was no plan B.
The British media reports have gone so far as to suggest that Jonker, whose son Rynhardt “plays with several Springboks at the Sharks” may be compromised as a matter of this.
Add to this the British and Irish Lions coach’s displeasure with Jonker over the fact that Faf de Klerk was given a yellow card for a shoulder charge that Gatland thought was red in the South African A game against the tourists, and a mini storm was brewing ahead of the test match.
“I can’t understand where the comments were that there was no contact to the head,” Gatland said last week, when recalling that narrow loss to the South African A side.
“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.”
Gatland has emphasised what he expects from the referees in the upcoming games and believes that an adverse decision could determine the outcome of the test series.
“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,” said Gatland earlier this week.
This was in reference to the Lions last series being was swung in the tourists favour when All Black Sonny Bill Williams was given a red card for a high tackle on Anthony Watson.
Britsh media reports went on to further point out how Jonker infuriated England fans by turning down a supposed try to Sam Underhill in 2018 in England’s narrow loss to New Zealand.
Underhill scored a try that looked to have won England the match only for Jonker to instruct French referee Jérôme Garcès to reverse his on-field decision for a marginal offside decision. Fellow South African referee Jonathan Kaplan would write afterwards that Jonker was incorrect to rule out the score.
Meanwhile, former Boks coach Nick Mallett said winning a series against the Lions will be a bigger achievement for the Springboks than their 2019 World Cup triumph. “To win a series from a rugby perspective is so much more than winning a World Cup,” said Mallett on SuperSport TV ahead of the first Test.
Mallett said he understood the importance of the World Cup for South Africa as a nation — but added that the quality of the opposition the Springboks will face in the next three weeks was a bigger challenge.
“You play Japan, you play Wales, you play England,” he said, recalling South Africa’s opponents in the knockout stages of the last World Cup.
Then he outlined the task facing the world champions.
“You play the best of the northern hemisphere on Saturday, the best of the northern hemisphere the next Saturday. It’s a much bigger challenge.”
He said the clash between the world champions, with “a very good coaching staff, outstanding individuals and a tight spirit,” against a high-quality Lions team was an “absolutely mouth-watering” prospect.