Saru, De Villiers apologise for eye-gouging comments

Springboks coach Peter de Villiers and his bosses at South Africa Rugby have apologised for his apparent acceptance that Schalk Burger’s eye-gouging of Lions winger Luke Fitzgerald was just part of the game.

Burger was banned for eight weeks after being shown a yellow card and sinbinned during South Africa’s 28-25 victory over the British and Irish Lions at Pretoria on Saturday. Although Lions head coach Ian McGeechan and many observers believed the back row star should have been sent off for the rest of the game, the often outspoken De Villiers said he didn’t think even a yellow card was warranted.

”I don’t think it was a card at all,” De Villiers said. ”There was a lot of needle and, if you dissect the whole game, you will see yellow cards that were missed.”

Burger, back from a calf muscle injury and making his 50th Springboks appearance, was seen to put his hand onto Fitzgerald’s face during a ruck with his fingers in the winger’s eyes only 32 seconds into the game at Loftus Versfeld. The linesman spotted the incident and reported it to French referee Christophe Berdos, who showed Burger a yellow card, which meant a 10-minute spot in the sinbin rather than being sent off for the rest of the game.

De Villiers’ post-game comments after his team had captured an unassailable lead in the three-game series were seen as surprising in the light of attempts by rugby’s governing bodies to rid the game of foul play.

On Monday he said efforts to take the physical elements out of the game might turn rugby into some kind of ballet performance.

”Why don’t we all go to the nearest ballet shop, get some nice tutus and get some great dancing going on. No eye-gouging, no tackling, no nothing. Then enjoy,” De Villiers told reporters.

”But, in this game, there will be collisions. There are no collisions in ballet. And the guy who wins the collisions hardest is the guy we always will select.”

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) issued a statement on Monday in which both De Villiers and Saru president Oregan Hoskins apologised that the coach’s comments suggested they condoned serious foul play.

”We would like to apologise to the rugby community for the erroneous impression that acts of foul play are in any way condoned by South African rugby,” Hoskins said. ”That has never been the case and is not now, and we support strong action by rugby authorities when such acts occur.

”Rugby is a physical game and a hard game, but it is a game that rightly prides itself on good sportsmanship and we as Saru categorically condemn any such action. Saru fully supports any action that the IRB feels appropriate to stamp out eye-gouging in the game.”

De Villiers, already in trouble with the Saru for comments with allegedly racist connotations he made in support of fielding black scrumhalf Ricky Januarie in the first test, said in the same statement that he stood against play that was not in the spirit of the game.

”Eye-gouging is something that we, as a team, will never be part of,” he said. ”The same applies to biting, head-butting, spear tackling or any other foul play that doesn’t belong in the game.

”My comments on Saturday were based on what I know of Schalk Burger as a player and not on what occurred. It was never my intention to suggest that I condone foul play. That is the last thing I would ever do and I apologise for creating any other impression.”

De Villiers has been summoned by Hoskins to explain his comments after he sent on out-of-form Januarie for Fourie du Preez in the first test, which South Africa won 26-21 in Durban. Saru said his comments might be construed as have having racist connotations.

”What I learned in South Africa is, if you take your car to a garage and the owner is black or a black man, and they mess it up, you never go back to that garage,” said De Villiers said. ”If the owner is white, you say ah gee, sorry, they made a mistake and you go back again. This is how some people live their lives in this country.”

Now he also has to justify the apparent over-physical tactics of his team against the Lions.

Saturday’s game was littered with foul play and heavy collisions, which led to several injuries with five Lions players needing hospital treatment and two Boks, Burger and lock forward Bakkies Botha, being banned for foul play.

Botha broke the rules with a heavy charge into Lions prop Adam Jones, which dislocated the Welshman’s shoulder and ruled him out of Saturday’s game at Ellis Park.

The Lions described some of the Boks play as brutal.

”I could never condone actions like that,” McGeechan said. ”I would hate to see those again. It should automatically be a red card, as I understand it.

”I heard a quote [from Springboks coach Peter de Villiers] that it might be part of the game. To me, that is never part of the game. I am very disappointed [De Villiers] said that. I can’t see that ever being part of the game. It certainly wouldn’t be part of a game I want to be associated with.” — Sapa-AP

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