Beware the whistle blowers

The influence of refereeing cannot be overlooked at the upcoming World Cup, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Without tempting fate, the Springboks can't afford to be caught out again by an inept official.

Bryce Lawrence became the most hated man in South Africa after his no-show in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final, which enabled the Wallabies to clinch a narrow win over the Boks.

Lawrence allowed for a free-for-all at the breakdown, with Wallabies fetcher David Pocock having an absolute field day, while a number of other controversial calls went against the Boks.

The New Zealander, who admitted afterwards that he’d made mistakes and let himself down, received a torrent of hate mail and threats in the aftermath, which effectively expedited his retirement from refereeing.

However unfair and over the top that reaction might have been, Lawrence would probably be the first to admit that it’s often the unfortunate nature of the game for a referee.

Romain Poite has been another nemesis for the Boks, tracing back to his controversial red-carding of Bismarck du Plessis during a 2013 Test against the All Blacks.

The Frenchman was at it again during this year’s Rugby Championship match against Argentina, making a number of questionable calls, particularly at scrum time and when he allowed the Pumas to take a quick tap and score at a time when there were a number of medics on the field.

Yet, the fact remains that the Boks were really in no position to blame Poite for that defeat. They knew that regardless of any refereeing display, they should never have lost to Argentina at home.

Similarly, the Boks of 2011 would surely admit that they should have had the Wallabies dead and buried in a game that they’d dominated despite the influence of Lawrence.

During the pool stage, the Boks’ World Cup matches will be officiated by northern hemisphere referees Jérôme Garcès, Wayne Barnes, Nigel Owens and Pascal Gauzere. Make no mistake, intensive analysis of all these whistle blowers will be carefully conducted.

Interpretations, and areas of fastidious focus will differ from man to man, particularly when it comes to northern hemisphere referees; World Rugby, though, will undoubtedly have stressed the need for consistency from all officials. Nevertheless, mistakes are sure to be made, and matches will be influenced by such decisions, just as it will be when players make crucial errors.

Former Springbok Brendan Venter, who was part of the 1995 World Cup-winning squad, recently acknowledged the potentially decisive roles referees would play at this year’s tournament.

Writing in his column after the Boks’ win over Argentina in their final World Cup warm-up match, Venter identified the vast difference in the refereeing displays of Poite and New Zealander Glen Jackson, who took charge of the match in Buenos Aires.

‘Jackson was very good and was in a different league, which aided the spectacle,’ Venter wrote. ‘Mark my words, referees are going to play a huge part in this year’s World Cup. If the Springboks draw a referee like Poite, their chances of winning the World Cup will be halved.’

That’s a pretty massive statement, but it’s not completely unfounded either.

In this regard, one can also not underestimate the influence of captain Jean de Villiers, who generally has a very good rapport with referees, and is able to communicate calmly and sensibly with the man in the middle.

It’s crucial that the Boks go into their World Cup games prepared for every eventuality, and with lessons learned from previous mishaps when they’ve found themselves on the wrong side of the referee’s whistle.

The Boks need to be able to deliver on what they can control, and hopefully take the referee out of the equation in order to avoid another Lawrence-like horror show.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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