British & Irish Lions

Nienaber: Springboks' 'good cop-bad cop' ref routine constructive, not 'manipulative'

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Siya Kolisi consults Jerome Graces in the 2019 World Cup. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Siya Kolisi consults Jerome Graces in the 2019 World Cup. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
  • The Springboks will probably continue to use role-playing exercises in dealing with referees, but it's not a case of "good cop-bad cop".
  • National coach Jacques Nienaber reiterated that it's an exercise merely designed to give players more confidence to engage with referees and their team-mates.
  • Planning for referees though is not exactly high on the agenda currently as the Springboks grapple several potential selection issues due to injury.

Role-playing will continue to be a major part of the Springboks' broader mission of dealing constructively with referees, but it's definitely not a case of playing "good cop-bad cop".

The issue came back into the spotlight on Wednesday following the confirmation that Nic Berry (Australia), Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand) and Mathieu Raynal (France) will be the men with the whistles in the Test series against the British & Irish Lions.

South Africa's strategy received widespread attention following South Africa's World Cup victory in 2019, where Duane Vermeulen was designated as the man to generally challenge on-field calls, with Siya Kolisi acting as a more diplomatic presence.

But Jacques Nienaber, the national coach, reiterated that it's not a case of the Boks trying to "manipulate" the officials, rather a way for generally passive local players to embrace engagement.

"I'm an Afrikaans boy coming from Bloemfontein. In my culture, it isn't natural for me to challenge or question authority. We had to, in our team environment, find a way to address these cultural differences. English-speaking players are more comfortable asking questions," he said from the City of Roses, where a group of overseas-based players are currently participating in a conditioning camp.

"In my experience, growing up, it was a case of being seen, not heard. That was a common thing said to you on a Sunday by your father. There’s a hierarchy.

"For an Afrikaans guy to talk to a referee is weird, because he’s in a position of authority."

However, the continued complexity of the game means players can't really afford to creep into their shells if their team wants to stay in matches.

Hence, let them don the hat of a specific personality.

"Good cop-bad cop is really just about us giving players a role to fulfil. One day, you would be the guy that questions decisions. The other you would be an encourager. You’re an actor, you play a role," said Nienaber.

"It is about making players more comfortable in their body language with refs. If things aren’t going well at the breakdown, at least ask for clarity, find a solution. That is our definition of a 'bad cop'.

"But it's not just confined to referees. A 'good cop' is someone who’ll congratulate or encourage a team-mate that did something well, like a good steal or solid clean-out."

Nienaber reiterated that there was and never will be any sinister motives behind the strategy.

"People might try to see this a manipulation, but it’s nothing like that. It’s a way to encourage our players, who generally don’t challenge decisions, to ask a question."

Planning for referees though is not exactly high on the agenda currently as the Springboks grapple several potential selection issues due to injury, notably Vermeulen's ankle surgery and the fire pit saga.

It doesn't mean it won't occur closer to the series.

"We know that referees are there to make sure the game is safe and we have to work with them to create a spectacle. Rugby is a game of contests. There are 600 contests in a game, that’s the beauty of it. That’s a lot of contests for a referee to adjudicate on," said Nienaber. 

"We know we need to be accurate. We know the gold lies in, for example, poaching a ball legally, because that’s the golden ten seconds of turnover ball and unstructured play to exploit.

"The referees announcement won’t influence how we plan in general. Every single coach will naturally look at trends, because every referee has his style. But we haven’t even looked at it yet."       

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