Erasmus believes the Springboks 'have a really good chance' against the All Blacks
The shrill of the referee’s whistle‚ history has shown‚ can have chilling if not grave consequences for teams in the knock-out stages of a Rugby World Cup (RWC).
By definition those matches are often delicately balanced and at a tournament that is widely expected to be the most closely contest yet‚ their role will come under even more scrutiny at this year’s installment.
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus‚ whose team plays the All Blacks in their opening pool match on Saturday‚ first flippantly brought up the matter before he addressed it head on when pressed on it by the New Zealand media on Wednesday.
Saturday’s pool match that will be refereed by France’s Jérôme Garcès does not carry the weight of a knock-out contest‚ but it may well shape the rest of the tournament.
“I think our boys have a really good chance‚” Erasmus said about his team’s prospects.
“I think Steve (Hansen‚ the All Blacks coach) will think they’ve got a really good chance and hopefully the referee is not too sure‚” said Erasmus.
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The last bit of that response invited a follow-up question which forced Erasmus onto a potential mine field‚ one he tiptoed with forethought and poise.
“In 2009 when South Africa was the number one team in the world and in 1999 when I played after that 17-Test unbeaten run you get a lot of respect from fans‚ opposition and the referees‚” said Erasmus.
“Even referees buy into that respect because you are playing so well. Referees tend to find it tough to penalise you in those 50/50 decisions.
“I think the way rugby has evolved in the last year or so‚ because all teams are so close currently. The gap between the teams has shrunk so much.
“New Zealand was number one in the world for so long. They had so much respect from the referees. It was a well-known fact. In those tough times those 50/50 decisions went their way because they deserved it as the number one team.
“That preconceived idea of this team can’t beat that team has gone. This is that RWC where any team can beat any team.
“You have to be open minded when you go into Test matches. I think they are currently‚” Erasmus gave a thumbs up to the officialdom.
That things have improved will be a source of huge comfort to fans who have travelled vast distances to get here.
Few rugby loving South Africans will forget New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence’s cruel hand in their RWC exit at the hands of the Wallabies at the 2011 tournament.
He referee was roundly lambasted and the fall out and criticism he received contributed to him not touring South Africa again and was dropped from the elite panel the following year.
Four years earlier Kiwis had English ref Wayne Barnes in their cross hairs for failing to spot a forward pass that saw them tumble out of the tournament at the hands of France.
Four years later France lamented the performance of South Africa’s Craig Joubert in the final‚ while Scotland were left with a bitter taste in the mouth following the same referee’s handling of their match against the Wallabies.