Boks floored by failure to adapt

The Boks should know there are no finite laws at the breakdown except for the laws perceived by the matchday referee, says JON CARDINELLI.

After Saturday’s defeat in Wellington, Peter de Villiers said the Boks would need to cheat if they were going to keep up with the All Blacks’ questionable tactics. Captain John Smit had a go at opposite number, Richie McCaw, after the All Blacks No 7 infringed regularly in the Cake Tin Test. The pair were in an agreement that referee Alain Rolland could have punished the Kiwis to a greater degree.

De Villiers and Smit have short memories. Last June, the Boks were accused of illegal tactics. Ball-stealing specialist Heinrich Brussow was vilified by British & Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan for his tendency to ride the tackle or position himself on the wrong side of the ruck. And if I remember correctly, Brussow was hailed by his coaches and team-mates as a key player in not only that series, but in the subsequent Tri-Nations triumph as well.

According to the laws, which favoured defensive sides in 2009, McGeechan was in the wrong. Brussow’s technique and ability to push the envelope played into South Africa’s favour. The bottom line is that Brussow and his team-mates adapted better to the change in laws, and the same could be said of McCaw and the All Blacks in the 2010 Tri-Nations.

McCaw is always pushing the boundaries, but he only pushes as far as the referee will allow. In the modern game, teams prepare for the referee, and need to pick up his management style in the opening quarter and adapt accordingly. While the Bulls and Stormers adapted well in the Super 14, the Boks are behind the All Blacks in this respect.

Most referees have relaxed their stance on the new law interpretations at the breakdown. In the earlier stages of the Super 14, officials were merciless in their application of a law that prescribes forward momentum for the attacking team. Towards the end of that tournament and in the last two months of Test rugby, referees are no longer as strict on the defending team.

It’s something Eddie Jones predicted when the laws were first introduced. Jones told this website he expected good defending teams to adapt, but he also expected referees to relax their application of the law as the Sanzar tournament wore on.

It hasn’t helped South Africa’s cause to have two northern hemisphere referees in their first two Tri-Nations Tests, as Alan Lewis and Alain Rolland aren’t exactly clued up on the new interpretations. Lewis battled to keep up with the flow of play and missed a host of infringements in the first Test, while Rolland allowed the All Blacks to slow the ball in the second match in Wellington.

A good side, however, would have adapted to the referee’s style in the opening quarter, and this is where the Boks fell short. They committed too few players at the breakdown which allowed the likes of McCaw to get their mitts on the ball.

It’s not something that’s limited to the Tri-Nations, as John Mitchell admitted after the Lions 32-0 defeat to WP last Saturday. Province were lucky to get away with holding onto the ball-carrier, and in some instances competing on the deck for longer than is normally permitted. The Lions lost a lot of possession, as WP began to dominate as the match wore on.

Mitchell lamented his side’s failure to adapt to the referee’s management style rather than lament a poor refereeing performance. In a complicated sport where the application of complicated laws is subjective, you need to be able to adapt, and the sooner the Boks accept this fact, the better.

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