Whingeing won't help Boks
Brisbane - Saloons in the Wild West often carried a notice: "Do not shoot the pianist, he is doing his best." This instruction came to mind when the madcap coach of the Springboks, Peter de Villiers, tried to explain his team's two comprehensive losses to the All Blacks.
According to Rugby Heaven correspondent Spiro Zavos, De Villiers suggested the Springboks had been persecuted by the referees. He threatened to "prepare guys to cheat" to turn this around. For the record, the penalty/free-kick count at Wellington under the Irishman Alain Rolland was 10-9 in favour of New Zealand. One penalty to South Africa was turned around after Danie Rossouw was given a yellow card for flicking Richie McCaw in the eyes and then kneeing him.
This hardly seems like the persecution of a team that was outplayed. And in Auckland in the first Tri-Nations Test, the Springboks were awarded seven consecutive penalties in the middle part of the match, and were well ahead in the penalty count despite being thrashed on the scoreboard.
The referee was Alan Lewis, another Irishman. Early on in this Test, Bakkies Botha headbutted All Blacks scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan out in the open, an atrocity that was missed by the referee and the assistant referees. Botha, who was defended by De Villiers, was banned for nine weeks. On Sunday, Jean de Villiers was banned for two weeks for a dangerous spear tackle at Wellington.
South Africa's problem is not so much with the referees but with their game plan, which is based on the premise that "might is right''. The problem for South Africa and De Villiers is that their thugby/kicking penalties game does not work against strong opponents under the interpretations of the laws. The reason for this was explained by the All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith before the Tests: "You can't kill the ball on the ground any more, you can't slow it down, you have to get out of there, it is a totally different game."
The interpretations are designed to open up rugby and allow teams to run the ball without the fear of incurring penalties to teams, such as the Springboks, which play a negative kicking and pressure game. The All Blacks have scored 24 tries in five Tests this season by being prepared to run the ball from inside their own 22. This is one fewer than they scored in 14 Tests last season. In two Tests against the Boks they have scored eight tries to two. Israel Dagg's fabulous try came after 12 phases of play. Interestingly, the two Springboks tries came towards the end of the second Test when they started to run the ball.
There is more than keeping the ball in hand about the All Blacks' game plan. They often tackled the Springboks runners around the legs. The runners dropped to the ground like felled logs. Then the second player to the tackle moved in and, legitimately, attacked the ball. The result was five All Blacks turnovers from rucks and mauls (one of them leading to a try and others saving tries) to two by the Springboks. The Springboks, on the other hand, continued last season's tactic of often not allowing the runner to place the ball, and were correctly penalised.
Poor coaching by De Villiers, therefore, has ensured that the Springboks have not yet adjusted to the "totally different game" of 2010.
This brings us to Saturday's Test in Brisbane between the Wallabies and the Springboks. The referee is another Irishman, George Clancy. His style, unfortunately, is more like that of a martinet rather than the facilitator that the IRB's referees boss Paddy O'Brien says he wants. "We don't want them to be traffic cops out there," he told journalists earlier this season.
If Clancy referees in the spirit and intention of the new interpretations like Rolland, this will help the high-octane running game the Wallabies will try to play. A Clancy of the overflowing penalties, though, will help the Boks' dated, negative game.