Warren Gatland, the British & Irish Lions head coach, on Thursday night reacted with fury after learning that South African Marius Jonker had been appointed as television match official for the Test series against the Springboks.
Jonker has already found himself at the centre of controversy on this tour. In the Lions’ defeat to South Africa A last week, Jonker was the TMO when scrum half Faf de Klerk was let off a red card for making contact with the head of flanker Josh Navidi. “Someone was watching a different picture to me,” Gatland said after the game. “I thought it looked reckless to me. No arms and he’s hit the arm first and then the shoulder, but there’s definitely head-on-head contact.”
On Wednesday, the Lions’ hierarchy were astonished to learn that Jonker, whose son Rynhardt plays with several Springboks for the Cell C Sharks, will replace the original TMO, Brendon Pickerill, from New Zealand, for the first Test at the Cape Town Stadium. He is also due to reprise that role for the second and third Tests on July 31 and August 7.
Pickerill pulled out because of travel disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic but World Rugby had no contingency plan, much to the the Lions’ disappointment.
That means that the single biggest rugby fixture of the year will not have a neutral TMO. The influence of the TMO has grown exponentially in recent years and several high-profile matches have been decided by trial by television. Gatland already fears that a single decision could turn the 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 who met Nic Berry, the match official, on Thursday to express his desire for greater consistency around the high-tackle law. The last Lions series hinged on Sonny Bill Williams’ red card for a high tackle on Anthony Watson.
Jonker has previously enraged England supporters in a fixture against New Zealand at Twickenham in 2018. With four minutes to go, Sam 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. Telegraph Sport columnist Jonathan Kaplan would write that Jonker was incorrect to rule out the score.
World Rugby are responsible for the appointment of all match officials and on Thursday insisted that the contingency appointments have to be local officials. Last year’s Rugby Championship also featured officials who were not neutral.
Jonker’s intervention in the South Africa A match, which the Lions lost 17-13, was one of a number of flashpoints. Gatland has also questioned Springboks’ director of rugby Rassie Erasmus’ role as a water-carrier during the match. While World Rugby regulations only prohibit the entry of the head coach on to the pitch, they have briefed officials to make sure Erasmus does not overstep his role. Gatland also advised, “he ought to make sure he’s carrying water next time he does that.”