A lesson in how to play the referee

Despite two losses, South Africa are showing plenty of promise, except when it comes to handling the referee

RUGBY: Jon Swift

`SEAN FITZPATRICK,” remarked South African coach Andre Markgraaff dryly, “tends to have that effect on people.” The reference was to the now infamous head-butt laid on the All Black skipper by John Allan in the first scrum of the Test at Christchurch.

History will show that it was, if you pardon the phrase, the first punctuation mark in a chapter of world rugby that left the Springboks at the wrong end of a 15-11 scoreline. And left them hoping for an Australian win against the All Blacks in Brisbane this weekend to pull them back into the three-nation Sanzar series after two consecutive defeats.

Allan’s sense of humour failure doubtless had something to do with Fitzpatrick’s renowned mastery of the quasi-legal nuances of front-row play, and the often Oscar-worthy look of innocence the New Zealand hooker turns on the referee is one of the more ludicrous sights in the game at Test level. Still, he remains a very class act.

The point about this is twofold. Allan — and indeed the whole South African side — are no strangers to Fitzpatrick’s calculatedly robust style of play. They know what to expect. Allan especially. He has hooked for both Scotland and South Africa at the high strata of the international game and, as veteran of the confrontational business of wearing the No 2 jersey, must surely understand by this stage that koppestamp — as a form of ritual mutual greeting — between hookers is just part of his chosen role.

No one expects a player wearing the green and gold to lie down meekly. But there are times when it is and prudent to take the lumps and tick the mental black book.

But Allan’s moment of madness was the catalyst that led to Scots referee Ray Megson sounding the first shrill notes of a bitter symphony scored to a rolling tempo of South African indiscipline. You can’t blame the referee. Humanity has a habit of expanding first impressions — especially those imprinted by a Liverpool kiss — into a firm course of action.

So it was with the controversial collapsed scrum that left tighthead Marius Hurter looking totally and utterly bemused by Megson’s penalty ruling.

Hurter had a superb game and is growing into his difficult role at a rapid rate. One suspects the shrewd mind of Fitzpatrick behind the result. Hurter lacks nothing but experience and Olo Brown knew he had been in a contest. But it surely must have crossed someone’s mind in the Springbok pack that Brown would give a soft push against the fired up Hurter and that this would more than likely result in the Boks being pulled up. It did!

The speed of tactical thought process and the disciplinary aspect of South African play needs some urgent attention. For it must be remembered that playing the referee is as much a part of the game as the strength of the opposition or the physical conditions. And incidents like the ill-judged shoulder charge by Pieter Hendriks did nothing to swing this aspect South Africa’s way.

But, that said, all is not totally lost and in a foreshortened three-team log, anything is still possible. The facts of the matter at present are that New Zealand stand on nine points, made up of four points each for the wins and a bonus point under the four-or-more-tries rule from the contemptuous way they put Australia away in that opening 43-6 win at Wellington.

Australia have four points from the victory over South Africa at Sydney. South Africa trail on two points for finishing inside the seven-point margin in two defeats.

Theoretically, South Africa can still finish on top. But much depends on Australia winning this weekend and then the Springboks winning both return matches here — Australia in Bloemfontein on August 3 and New Zealand at Newlands the following weekend — by handsome four-try margins and keeping the opposition from crossing their line four times in either encounter.

A maximum of five points from resounding victories in each of the Tests to come would only give South Africa 12 points … not enough to pip New Zealand if they win in Brisbane.

But there was much to take heart from — even in defeat — for the World Cup champions. The forwards are starting to find some consistency and fluidity. But Markgraaff must surely be concerned about the on-going inability of his side to retain ball possession and the lack of fizzle and snap in the finishing phases.

Time and again the Aussies and the All Blacks managed to turn our players and gain possession at vital stages. It is time for examining the inescapable fact that winning ball in the set-pieces is one thing, coming up with it in second and third phase play another entirely.

But on the upside, the backline looks far more potent with Joel Stransky at pivot and more cohesive with Johan Roux at the base of the scrum in preference to the out-of-form Joost van der Westhuizen, despite his match-winning qualities.

Stransky has the type of vision the game demands at this level, as his decision to switch play and leave the All Blacks flat-footed in the only try of the game so amply showed. Roux has the steadiness that, while it may lack true brilliance, tends to play for the forwards rather than against them.

The continuing fitness problems of Hennie le Roux are a major concern for the up-coming Sanzar games and the three-Test series against the All Blacks which follows. The diminutive Transvaaler, one feels, has the key to return some sync to a backline at present without it.

We have some superb wings. Justin Swart is one example and there is still Chester Williams on the comeback charge from surgery to wait for. Surely we must begin to use them now that the forwards have shown they are equal to the task given them?

For the present, there is little that the South Africans can do but wait for the outcome of Australia-New Zealand this Saturday. If Australia win, we are back with a shout. If New Zealand come out on top, as the form form suggests they should, all that remains is to look towards the three Tests against the All Blacks and a series victory.

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