Is Rassie Erasmus unravelling, or is it all a canny masterplan for the Springboks?

South Africa’s director of rugby/waterboy has adopted some bizarre tactics in cyberspace ahead of the second Test against the British & Irish Lions

The first Test in South Africa was hardly a British & Irish Lions classic. Far from it.

No fans, so none of the fervour that usually attaches itself so inextricably to Lions fixtures. A scrappy try apiece. Yes, there was a compelling comeback, but the Lions’ 22-17 win was still short on quality.

And yet there is rapt anticipation for Saturday’s second Test. Of course, to see whether the Springboks can level the series, or if the Lions can close out a historic series win.

But perhaps equally importantly, to see just what Rassie Erasmus will really think about it. Or, even more vitally, what will Jaco Johan think about it?

Immediately after Saturday’s Test, Erasmus, the Boks’ director of rugby-come-waterboy, won praise for his magnanimity in defeat.

“No excuses this side,” he wrote on social media, in reply to the official Lions account.

“You are far away from home, families and going through same tough Covid protocols like we do. Congrats and well deserved.”

So far, so sensible.

Since then, though, things have taken a turn for the absurd. And the possibly-contrived, certainly-vague character Jaco Johan has suddenly become a central figure in the series.

What we do know is Erasmus follows just three accounts on Twitter. They are the two Lions giants, Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje. And then the less celebrated “Jaco Johan”.

Johan’s biography describes himself thus: “I am Rassie's voice when he is too nervous to say something himself! Watch the space some good stuff on its way! #burner account.”

So Erasmus has a burner account where he can (not entirely) anonymously vent his true feelings? Hardly unique on Twitter, but not in fact the case, according to the man himself.

“I actually follow Jaco Johan, he’s a big supporter of us,” Erasmus said, after attending a press conference to address the issue of his online alter ego.

“He’s been feeding me some really good clips for a while now, things that I’ve actually used in the past.

“He’s a very big supporter, a really funny guy and I quite enjoy the things that he does.”

Those “good clips” have this week included a variety of perceived offences by Lions players that went unpunished in the first Test.

Johan praises Erasmus for his “attitude in defeat” while taking it upon himself to highlight foul play with the use of HD TV footage.

Erasmus responded with thanks, before saying it happens in rugby, and “sometimes calls go for you and other times they don’t”.

A day later, though, Erasmus directly tweeted a grievance from his own account, relating to Mako Vunipola, the Lions prop, picking the star Boks wing Cheslin Kolbe off the floor.

At the very least, it is a wacky way to go about airing his grievances. Certainly unbecoming of someone who confirmed himself as a rugby super-coach by overseeing the Boks’ World Cup win in Japan in 2019.

Until now, coaches have generally restricted themselves to the eminently more acceptable means of verbal hand grenades via conventional media briefings.

For example, Warren Gatland, Erasmus’ opposite number with the Lions, is a past master at shaping media narrative to suit his ends – although even he does not always get it quite right.

It seems odd to recall now, given the bizarre unravelling of Erasmus this week, that Gatland was portrayed as a clown on the last Lions tour.

With the series in New Zealand tensely poised, the New Zealand Herald mocked the Lions coach with a cartoon of him dressed as a clown. That, too, centred on a furore about dirty play.

All that mattered after that, though, was who got the right result. The Lions tied the series against the world champions, and Gatland’s fine record as Lions coach remained intact.

Will Erasmus be able to say the same in the next week or so? Will the noise he has taken on himself help his side? Perhaps only the results of the remaining two Tests will provide the answers.

Updated: July 29th 2021, 10:05 AM
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