World Rugby awards snub is the latest sore point for South Africa

It was the last straw for many South Africans. So far this year they have battled their way past Covid-19 and the British & Irish Lions, beaten New Zealand on the Gold Coast and, more recently, overturned Wales and Scotland. And how many of their beloved Springboks have been shortlisted for a men’s player or coaching World Rugby award? None, niemand or akukho nanye, depending on whether you prefer to receive your bad news in English, Afrikaans or Xhosa.

On its own this would have been a relatively minor issue. France’s Antoine Dupont, England’s Maro Itoje and the Wallabies’ duo of Michael Hooper and Samu Kerevi are all fine players and no one has ever argued that award shortlists are a perfect science. But the context is all: plenty of people in South Africa are already outraged at what they regard as the continuing showtrial of Rassie Erasmus, the Springboks’ director of rugby, in the wake of his infamous Lions tour video rant and detect a recurring theme.

There is obviously a danger here of putting two and two together and coming up with a number well in excess of four. The view from north of the equator can also be markedly different from how the world appears from down south, even if South African provincial sides now feature in the new United Rugby Championship. One thing, though, is very clear: many in South Africa feel disrespected, patronised and wronged and are increasingly making those views clear.

Which is why the omission of, among others, Siya Kolisi, Damian de Allende, Lukhanyo Am and Eben Etzebeth from the player shortlist prompted such an outcry on social media. The former Springbok captain John Smit was on the World Rugby panel but little good it did Kolisi or his teammates. Incidentally there were no All Blacks shortlisted, either, which really is a moment for the scrapbook.

There is certainly a strong argument that Kolisi and the consistently influential De Allende have been unlucky, with Erasmus’s colleague Jacques Nienaber also a conspicuous absentee from the coaching list. Then again, after Saturday’s result in Dublin, maybe Andy Farrell deserved greater recognition for helping to engineer Ireland’s third win over the All Blacks in five meetings. Not that any of the above names would end up victorious: the brilliant Dupont is a shoo-in for player of the year and, if a rising results graph is the main criteria, the England women’s head coach, Simon Middleton, would fully deserve an award for his coaching.

But this is meant to be a piece about contrasting perceptions and whether, specifically, South African rugby is getting the thin end of the wedge. There is even a precise date – 15 November 2017 – when that jaundiced belief became properly entrenched.

Despite South Africa’s bid to stage the 2023 Rugby World Cup having been recommended as the preferred option, a controversial secret ballot instead ended up awarding the tournament to France, prompting SA Rugby’s president, Mark Alexander, to issue an apology to South Africans for raising their hopes. It just happened to coincide with Erasmus’s return from Munster to pick up the Springbok reins and we all know how that turned out.

South Africa were deserved winners of the Webb Ellis Cup, their pack proving themselves first among equals and their muscular gameplan demolishing England in the 2019 final. Was there any hint of disrespect from the northern hemisphere as Kolisi hoisted the trophy aloft? Not remotely, but the arrival of Covid meant the Boks never had the collective chance to undertake the year-long global lap of honour their achievement clearly merited.

Maybe that is why this summer’s Lions tour had an increasingly sour edge to it: the more the visitors laid waste to below-strength provincial sides, the less it felt as if they were touring the strongest rugby nation on Earth. The economic and social hardships, the player drain to richer club leagues, the lack of crowds and face-to-face interaction to humanise the experience … if you are being generous you can begin to see why Erasmus started to act as if the whole rugby world was against him.

My personal sense is that he had also studied how New Zealand sought to get at Warren Gatland on the 2017 Lions tour and, once South Africa had gone 1-0 down in a tight Lions series, decided he had little to lose. Had he showcased more of the tight decisions that went against the Lions as well as those that went in South Africa’s favour, his hour-long video might have had genuine validity. As it was, for anyone not wearing green and gold blinkers, the blatant attempt to influence the refereeing of the final two Tests – which duly worked a treat – clearly rode roughshod over any notion of protecting the sport’s integrity or respecting the officials.

The verdict of the independent panel is due to be made public in the coming days and will inevitably generate further howls of protest regardless of the outcome. If it is legitimate to ask why it has taken four months to reach this point, part of the answer lies in the behind-the-scenes legal wrangling on the South African side. In Johannesburg and Bloemfontein it has long since become less about a video and more about the alleged desire of certain others to diminish Erasmus and tarnish the legacy of their World Cup-winning national hero.

So watch this space for the dramatic final reel. Will Erasmus simply receive a fine and a slap on his laptop wrist or something more draconian? Will the Springboks have the last laugh out on the pitch and add England to their pile of scalps? And while we are at it – shortlists aside – let us all pray for one more thing: a transparently level playing field and less angry finger-pointing across rugby’s supposed north-south divide.