The Springboks can’t go into their Rugby World Cup semi-final against Wales with one eye focused on referee Jerome Garces, but they have to adapt to his style of policing the breakdown and offsides line, writes JOHN GOLIATH.
Richie McCaw was probably the most streetwise rugby player I have ever witnessed. Early on in Test matches he would try his luck at the breakdown to get a grip on the referee’s interpretation of policing the tackle area. He would then adjust his game to suit the referee and not his own style when fighting for the ball on the ground.
David Pocock is more or less the same. The Wallaby fetcher did it in 2011 in the World Cup quarter-final against the Springboks when New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence gave him license to do whatever he wanted to at the breakdown.
Having recently watched the replay again, Pocock got away with murder on that fateful Sunday against Peter de Villiers’ team. It was like Lawrence was stuck in between the Matrix and reality, as Pocock consistently came in from the side, went off his feet and never released the ball when a ruck was formed during that match.
Besides their athletic ability to get around the park and taking the punishment while trying to fight for the ball, playing the referee is what set Pocock and McCaw apart from their peers.
It’s difficult to say with absolute certainty that Lawrence would also have allowed the Boks to have a free-for-all buffet at the breakdown alongside Pocock that day. But it’s not in a South African rugby player’s nature to try to play the referee.
It’s my opinion that our rugby players aren’t coached to really think for themselves, but to play a certain way in a certain situation and in a certain part of the field. The same goes for toeing the line at the breakdown. Our players won’t test the referee to check his pressure points.
There are supposed to be simple and clear guidelines about how a referee should police the breakdown, but unfortunately different referees seem to have different ideas about the breakdown. It’s a nightmare, really.
South Africa’s arch-nemesis in this regard is Jerome Garces, who will be the man in charge of their crunch World Cup semi-final against Wales on Sunday.
The Boks have a terrible record with the Frenchman wielding the whistle in their Test matches. They have managed to win only four of the 14 Tests he’s officiated for a diabolical 29% win record. He was also in charge on the day the Boks lost to the Japan four years ago in Brighton, while South Africa haven’t beaten the All Blacks in six games when Garces was the referee.
Garces also handled the Boks’ opening match of the World Cup against New Zealand when they lost 23-13. During that match there were also quite a few questionable calls which went against the team in green and gold.
Former Bok centre and coach Brendan Venter wrote afterwards on New Zealand website Stuff.co.nz that Garces is the sort of referee that lets a lot of things slide to try to make the game a lot more attractive.
‘As expected, Garces was shocking and is part of the current breed of referees we refer to as an “everything goes referee” and their thinking is that the lower the penalty count, the better the spectacle, but they are wrong,’ Venter complained.
‘Before the match, I knew the referee would struggle both ways because of his inability to make strong calls. For us as coaches, the issue with referees is not the mistakes they make, it’s non-refereeing and what they don’t blow.
‘It’s when they don’t referee the offside line, don’t police the breakdown, the tackler rolling, counter-rucking from the side and illegal play in the lineout which is an issue.
There’s definitely a lesson in for the Boks. If Garces is going to be lenient on the day, especially at the breakdown, they have to adapt and push the limits themselves. They have to try to push their luck – obviously not in penalty range – early on to see what sort of mindset the Frenchman is in.
If the guy is not going to police the offsides line properly, then they must take a step forward. If the guy doesn’t care about the arriving player keeping his body weight (like he did in the All Blacks match) by all means fight for the ball on the ground even if your knee is on the ground.
The Boks’ primary focus is Wales on Sunday, but it’s time to also play the ref. You can’t just sit back and hope this guy is going to blow the game fairly and according to the letter of the law. It’s not going to happen, and we have plenty of examples of that.
It’s dangerous to focus on a referee when the former World No 1 team is blocking the view, but the Boks need to adapt to Garces’ style, or die and moan about it for the next four years.