The British and Irish Lions are confident that referee Ben O’Keeffe will not be influenced by Rassie Erasmus’ extraordinary attack on the officials from the first Test as they aim to seal a series victory over South Africa on Saturday.
Warren Gatland’s tourists have reacted to Erasmus’ unprecedented 62-minute critique of the performance of Nic Berry at Cape Town Stadium last Saturday by launching a charm offensive.
Erasmus, the Springboks’ director of rugby, posted a video online in which he accused Berry of showing Siya Kolisi less respect than his opposite number, Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones.
The mastermind of South Africa’s 2019 World Cup triumph used 26 clips to highlight perceived mistakes and inconsistencies from Berry, who is an assistant for the potentially decisive second Test at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.
The Lions, however, have adopted a more diplomatic tone on the eve of a clash that could elevate them alongside the triumphant tours of 1974 and 1997 with full-back Stuart Hogg gushing in his praise of O’Keeffe, who is from New Zealand.
“In the short time I’ve been Scotland captain, Ben O’Keeffe has been one of the best referees I’ve had to deal with. He almost coaches you round the field at the same time,” Hogg said.
“When we ask questions he’s very calm in his answers and he’s good at communicating. That’s a reason why a large majority of his games when he’s involved are allowed to flow. You’re allowed to get on with it.
“He helped me massively in the couple of games we’ve had him when I’ve been leading the side. Everyone is entitled to the opinion of referees, but they have a huge amount of respect from us as players. I’d hate to do the job if I’m honest!
“But Ben O’Keeffe has been one of the best referees I’ve had the opportunity to deal with as captain.”
Forwards coach Robin McBryde added his approval having met with the officiating team alongside Gatland on Thursday.
“As Ben O’Keeffe said himself, we’re aware there’s a lot of stuff out there on social media etc but that’s not going to affect anything,” McBryde said.
“That’s just a sideshow. We had a positive discussion with the referee. Everyone realises they’re in a tough place. They’ve got a tough job to do.
“But we were really happy with Nic Berry last Saturday and I don’t think it will be any different this weekend either.
“On Ben we have no issues. He is a top man and we are looking forward to working with him on Saturday.”
World Rugby is concerned at the assault on an important principle of the game – respect for the referee – and has demanded an explanation from SA Rugby, potentially leading to an investigation.
McBryde wants the ill-feeling generated by Erasmus’ onslaught against Berry to fade in time for the second Test.
“Traditionally rugby has prided itself on showing respect to the officials. No back chat etc,” said McBryde when explaining his objection to the trial of a new law that allows decisions to be challenged.
“Right from a very young age players are taught that you can’t speak back to the referee. Hopefully that will continue.
“We had a very positive meeting with the three officials yesterday and we’re looking forward to the game on Saturday.
“Hopefully it will be a great game and contest and we can forget about what has gone on this week and it does not detract from the actual spectacle.”
McBryde confirmed that Dan Biggar is poised to continue at fly-half, with Friday’s contact session the final stage to prove he has recovered from the concussion sustained in the first Test.
Progressive Rugby, a lobby group working to raise awareness of head injuries, has been vocal on social media over Biggar’s concussion, as well as Jones stating he was unaware his Wales team-mate “was carrying anything”.
“Dan has been symptom-free since his post-match head injury assessment and has remained symptom-free throughout the process,” McBryde said.
McBryde was critical of the Cape Town Stadium surface, which cut up badly last Saturday, but insists it is still possible to scrummage despite its softness in certain areas.