RWC 2023: Rassie’s ref olive branch, Boks’ tweaked game flow approach may have tipped balance against France

RWC 2023: Rassie’s ref olive branch, Boks’ tweaked game flow approach may have tipped balance against France

There is no definitive way of knowing if Springbok director of rugby Rassie Erasmus’ contrition over the lack of respect he showed referees previously had an influence on the outcome of Sunday’s brilliant quarterfinal against France. It might have.

But the fact that the rugby world is calling it one of the best games ever, suggests that referee Ben O’Keeffe had a good game. He wasn’t the defining factor in the outcome — at least to most observers outside France.

Incidentally, O’Keeffe will handle Saturday’s semi-final between the Boks and England as well. Australian Angus Gardner will take charge of the All Blacks against Argentina. 

After last November’s Northern Hemisphere tour, the Springboks made a collective decision that they (well, Rassie really) would show match officials respect regardless of the outcome of matches. In future, they offer nothing but respect to officials even if they believe them to be wrong.

Problems and questions would only be raised in private and through formal channels. The change of mindset might have had benefits when it came to 50/50 calls on the field but in reality, the biggest benefit was to Springbok players themselves.

They’ve shed the victim mentality. They’ve moved away from finding fault with the refs and it’s been liberating. Players have been emboldened to play hard and on the edge without worrying about decisions. It’s cathartic because they spend more energy on doing their jobs and less worrying about the officials.

By contrast French players and the understandably myopic crowd at Stade de France were at referee O’Keeffe all night as the Boks edged Les Bleus 29-28 in a fantastic game.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Narrowest of margins: Brutal Boks find a way to edge Les Bleus in Paris quarterfinal thriller

French players regularly gave O’Keeffe a mouthful and while some tight calls might have gone against them, the same could be said the other way.

France captain Antoine Dupont was critical of O’Keeffe after his side lost, saying he wasn’t up to the task.

“I’m not sure the refereeing was at the level of what was at stake,” Dupont said.

“There are few clear things where the whistle could’ve blown. We could’ve had some crucial penalties, but I don’t want to be a bad loser.” Which is precisely what he was being, although it was said in the aftermath of mammoth disappointment.

Eben Etzebeth

Eben Etzebeth of South Africa is shown a yellow card by referee Ben O’Keeffe and he signals a TMO Bunker Review. (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Difficult job

Rugby played at this level, between sides that are so closely matched, will always have some marginal calls.

The laws themselves are almost impossible to apply with consistency. For example, there are more than 20 possible infringements at every breakdown and there are

…. to be continued
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