When 31 determines who will be No 1

Springbok coach Jake White tells Keo the referees will have the most impact on the World Cup.

White also believes Tony Spreadbury’s officiating in the opening game will prove significant to the kind of rugby played in the remainder of the World Cup.

Jake White has said it more than once that he expects Argentina to beat France in the World Cup opener, but more than the result White will be focusing on the approach of the referee, in this instance England’s Tony Spreadbury.

“The referees, like every player and coach, will be under pressure. They are answerable to an assessor and a higher influence and they will be measured in their ability to adhere to certain pre-determined and agreed on approaches. We see it at the start of every Super 14, Tri Nations, Six Nations and European Cup. There is always something specific the referees focus on and that’s where they take a hard line,” says White. “If you don’t adapt immediately it could prove costly. What I am sure will be answered in that first game is exactly what that focus will be for the World Cup.”

White thinks there will be a zero-tolerance approach at the breakdown, which in itself is down to interpretation, while he also envisages the scrums to initially be a lottery as the referees look to assert themselves on the tournament.

“What I will take from that first game is whether it is in your interests to have the ball in the first 20 minutes. What will their approach be to the tackle situation? Is it going to be the team doing all the attacking and making all the play that gets punished? Or will it be fair play to attackers and defenders at collision time? Do you play a ball-in-hand game in that opening period or do you play for field position and defend the position and force the penalty?

“I’ve seen it often in big tournaments that the team wanting to make the play actually ends up getting penalised for this positive approach. It is easier for an attacking player to infringe at the breakdown through over eagerness and not malice. If five attackers are playing two defenders at a ruck the law of averages says the advantage should be with the attacking side, but often it is one or two of the enthusiastic five that get penalised for going off their feet or falling over, while the desperate two hanging onto the ball and perhaps doing so cynically don’t get penalised. So is it a case of backing your defence in those frantic opening 20 minutes, settling the nerves through accurate and aggressive defence or do you risk referee interpretation when you take the ball into the tackle?”

White says the Boks have done their homework on every referee at the tournament, but adds he has sympathy for the blokes who wear 31.

“I am not being negative when I say the referees will have a major influence on the tournament. I am also not saying they will get it wrong because there are some fantastic referees in the game. What I am highlighting is the importance and influence of the referee in determining the outcome of the game. Rugby is not a sport where the referee simply manages the game. He is a capable of influencing the result because so much is down to interpretation. It would be naïve to underestimate the role of the referee,” said White. “I feel for those guys because they are making calls without the luxury of a replay or without the advantage of an aerial view. They have to make a decision in an instant and the reality is some do it better than others.”

White said he anticipated the scrum to be another area where referees would want to take the intensity out of the game in the opening exchanges and this was an area where a referee could also take ownership of the contest.

“Some referees encourage scrumming, while others want to avoid the possibility of numerous resets while the packs are sizing each other up. So you could find both teams getting early penalties as the referee tries to calm the situation. Put it this way, there’s a hell of a lot of heat on those guys. Unfortunately the only press they get is when they get it wrong and so many of them get it right most of the time.

“But it is the nature of the game and because so much is down to interpretation their decision-making gets analysed more intensely. So expect lots of stoppages and lots of penalties.”

It is why, says White, goalkicking and not tries will win the big games.

“I’ve maintained all along the guys who can kick the penalties and drop goals will make the biggest contribution to any successful campaign and I am confident we have one of the most accurate in Monty, with capable back-up in Andre Pretorius, Butch James, Frans Steyn and Ruan Pienaar.”