Boks: Intense study of refs crucial

Gary Gold says notable differences in interpretations between the northern and southern hemisphere referees has made detailed analysis critical to World Cup success.

Gold said the most prominent differences are at the breakdown, with officials from the north tending to award more penalties than their counterparts, who are generally more lenient in this facet of play.

Welsh referee Nigel Owens, who will take charge of the Springboks’ final pool match against Samoa on Friday, has bucked that trend, awarding less breakdown penalties than any of his colleagues in the tournament on average (8.7 per match). This facet of play will be decisive to the pattern and flow of the match, and Gold says it is their responsibility to adapt accordingly.

‘We’ve done a lot of work on the analysis of referees, we felt that was key if you want be to successful,’ Gold told ‘There is an interpretation difference between the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere referees at the breakdown.

‘It’s not that they are doing anything wrong, it’s simply that they look at different key triggers at the breakdown. Does he [the referee] get the tackler out of the way? Does he allow the ball carrier some right to present the ball? Does he allow the defending players a chance to contest? Who does he give those rights to? From our point of view the breakdown has been a massive area of concern and work. But we’ve got a simple philosophy here – we are responsible for how we fare there. If we’re good enough and do our job properly we make his life easy.’

The Springboks, armed with potent openside flank Heinrich Brussow and competent ruck scrappers like Schalk Burger and Bismarck du Plessis, will be encouraged by the trend that has allowed defending sides a relatively fair crack at slowing or turning over possession, particularly against a Samoan side who thrive when allowed to build momentum through phases.

‘In Super Rugby it was about 75-25% to the attacking team,’ Gold said of the penalty split for breakdown infringements. ‘In 2009 it was almost 50-50%, and now it’s gone about 60-40% in favour of the attacking team, which I think is right. If you’re legal in your contest you’re getting rewarded, if not you’re pinned, which is exactly how it should be.’

The Springboks’ ability to stifle Samoa’s attacking flow will also amplify their defensive threat, in so much as it will allow them to set their defensive line more often. While their defensive discipline has been excellent (they have one of the lowest penalty counts – 7.3 on average per match), the Springboks have been defensively vulnerable, missing an average of 26 tackles per pool match. That they missed most of those in the opposition’s half or in relatively non-threatening areas of their territory has aided their cause, as has their scramble defence.

Gold is acutely aware that Samoa are able to capitalise on such lapses in a manner Fiji and Namibia never were. ‘When you’re playing against big stepping teams like Fiji and Samoa there are going to be half breaks,’ Gold said, explaining there are inconsistencies in assessing what constitutes a missed tackle.

‘We’re very happy with conceding just nine points in the tournament and after three games that’s a good start. There’s some way to go still. They have steppers but also physical and direct players. So stopping their momentum [at the gainline] is another focus defensively. We’re on the right track but there is room for improvement in our one-on-one tackles. I’m proud of how hard the guys work in training on this and it has become personal now. We want to maintain, even improve on, the standard we’ve set.’

The Springboks have been criticised for being overly conservative against elite opponents, but have vehemently maintained that the pragmatic style they prefer maximises their strengths. Gold, however, warned to be careful about branding them conservatives without due consideration.

‘Sometimes perceptions don’t match reality,’ he said. ‘The Crusaders were among the teams to kick most in Super Rugby this year, but they are perceived to be this wonderfully expansive side. They are in fact very structured and kick often, but they do that very well and very intelligently.

‘The mindset does change [for a World Cup]. You play not to lose, as opposed to playing to win. There’s a fine line in what that means. You’ll play more to your strengths and minimise the risk because potentially the higher the risks the lower the rewards.’

By Ryan Vrede, in Auckland.

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