Refs to decide RWC outcome?

2007-09-06 11:28

JJ Harmse

It's time for the contenders and the pretenders to define their roles in world rugby.

It's time to talk the talk and, more importantly, walk the walk.

Someone's bluff will be called during the next seven weeks of the Rugby World Cup and some coaches will earn the freedom of their capitals and countries, should they return home having guided their respective teams to success.

For some coaches, a lot is at stake.

The top guys like Graham Henry, Jake White, Bernard Laporte, Eddie O'Sullivan and the likes have sold the World Cup line to their executives for a couple of years now.

The All Blacks reconditioned for a number of months, the Springboks sacrificed the Tri-Nations and sent a so-called 'B-team' Down Under, Wales made the Aussies uncomfortable with their second-stringers and France almost went to war with New Zealand in June because of the "strength" of their touring side.

All of that happened with the bigger picture in mind - the World Cup.

But arriving in France, anything can happen... and that is the truth.

Preparation

World Cups are made and broken with 80 minutes of rugby.

Teams have ploughed four years of preparation into seven weeks in the most romantic country in the world.

For most, there will be heartbreak, for others the wonder of what could have been.

But for one, one lucky country, there will be the glory of redemption. The proof that plans have finally come together and the belief that everything they did for four years was worth the effort.

The problem is that not every country will know where they stand (and fall) in the greater scope of things before the final whistle has been blown.

One thing rugby writers learn over their careers is that coaches ride a rollercoaster of luck. Sometimes their best-laid plans do not materialise.

In other cases, a coach who is under-prepared is throw a lifeline with a lucky intercept which seals a famous victory.

Coaching is an art, but there's also more than an element of luck involved.

But, perhaps more important than all, will be the role of the referees, the most-hated and, at times, most-loved of individuals.

Coaches were invited to a meeting with Paddy O'Brien, the International Rugby Board's head of referees, just before the tournament kicked off.

All 20 coaches of the teams in the World Cup arrived - but just two captains. It is significant that those were Springbok John Smit and Richie McCaw of the All Blacks.

Lean on the shoulder

In that meeting the coaches were asked not to run to the media should they have worries about the referees.

Instead, they should lean on the shoulder of O'Brien and allow him to put the boot into his charges.

O'Brien promised the coaches that referees would be subject to criticism and introspection from their own peers.

The losers, he said, may not be considered for the bigger matches of the tournament.

The coaches, one is surprised to learn, for once had little to say.

Even Graham Henry, the most vocal of all, was as silent as a church mouse.

Perhaps it had something to do with the clips showing New Zealand players not sticking to the rules, pretending to bind, obstructing around the rucks and putting the ball in skew at the scrums.

Not to mention the New Zealand lineout of course, because that is one area not even the most passionate Kiwi wishes to talk about.

Both All Blacks hookers, Anton Oliver and Keven Mealamu, are among the worst of lineout throwers in the game.

You would have more success going down to your local pub and having a go at the dart board stone cold sober than the Kiwi twosome have of finding their locks, it seems.

Mercy of the referee

The way the breakdown, the set-up at scrums and the formation of lineouts will be officiated, will be crucial in determining the way teams execute their gameplans.

Many teams base their structure and gameplan on first-phase play like lineouts and scrums, so will be at the mercy of the referee in that regard.

There was a lot said by O'Brien about the uniformity of how referees will handle the whole crouch, touch, pause, engage issue, with a promise that fewer scrums than ever will be reset.

But he also admitted every scrum would be treated on merit.

So now, I wonder, how do you apply the same principle to something that changes from scrum to scrum?

Will the best-coached side be sidetracked by the 12th best referee in the world?

Or will the 12th best team in the world be nailed by the best referee?

I cannot wait to bring you the answer.

Au revoir until next week.

  • Read JJ every Sunday in Rapport.

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