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Opener against New Zealand critical for Boks, says expert ref

  • jonathan kaplan
As befits a former rugby referee of high standing, Jonathan Kaplan has no difficulties in making a split-second decision. When it comes to picking his favourites for the World Cup later this month, therefore, Kaplan is as quick to the proverbial breakdown as the most gnarled blindside flanker.
by LUKE ALFRED | Sep 05, 2019

To begin with, the rumours of the All Blacks’ demise are over-exaggerated, he says with authority. “I think that it’s more a case of the gap between them and the chasing pack closing. New Zealand are still clear favourites for the title, with England the next closest rival. I like the England attacking game, and their defensive organisation is impressive. I’ve always liked Eddie Jones as a coach, and in someone like John Mitchell, they have one of the finest defensive coaches in the world game, period.”

Next in line for the World Cup crown, Kaplan mentions Wales and Ireland – in that order. Of Wales, he says they have a team “who can challenge” the aforementioned big two, but at the same time, he doesn’t seem to be entirely convinced of their World Cup pedigree. “Ireland have fallibilities,” he says. “I like their coaching team with Joe Schmidt and his back-up. They could do well, although they’re not completely convincing at the moment.”

What, then, of the Springboks?

Kaplan opens his discussion of the beloved Bokke by saying that South Africa’s Super Rugby campaign was “horrendous”, although this needs to be contrasted with the Boks’ Rugby Championship win, which, he says, will have given them immense confidence. “The Springboks know how to win big games,” he says, “and they have World Cup experience, so they’ll definitely be in with a shout.

“Their opening game against New Zealand is important. I don’t think a team who have lost their opening game have ever gone on to win a World Cup.”

In more general terms, Kaplan believes Japan will host a fabulous World Cup, and says that the International Rugby Board (IRB) were right to move the hosting of the event away from rugby’s traditional heartlands. “There are intangibles, having said that,” he says. “There’s always the bounce of the ball, or inclement weather, or a sudden lack of form. Those things can definitely happen. As can injuries. Injuries to, say, an Owen Farrell [of England] can be massively disruptive.”

Kaplan “is in the midst of re-locating”, so it’ll be a case of “finding the nearest pub” wherever he finds himself in the world come the tournament proper. That might be in Chicago, Toronto, or the Caribbean, so he is sure to have a cosmopolitan viewing experience wherever he may be.

As far as the more esoteric aspects of the game are concerned, Kaplan can’t help but look at things from the point of view of a former referee. He says he “would like to see the breakdown handled consistently”, and is not always confident that this is the case.

In regard to the laws about dangerous tackles, he frames his answers by saying that the laws have been refined in favour of “safety and attacking rugby”, and agrees with that completely.

“But I do think there is potential conjecture around the dangerous-tackle law,” he says, “particularly with regard to the tackler rather than the ball carrier.

“In protecting the ball carrier’s head, which is very much a no-go zone, I do have concerns that perhaps the laws have become slightly skewed in favour of the ball carrier rather than the tackler. What happens, say, if the carrier moves his head, and the tackler has already committed himself to the tackle?”

Other than issues like the breakdown and dangerous tackles, one of South Africa’s best-loved former referees says he is sympathetic to fans on television who sense that forward passes aren’t being picked up in the way they perhaps could be.

“I sympathise with the viewer on this one because the way that the law is framed at the moment is that if it’s not a ‘clear and obvious’ forward pass then we stay with the original decision,” says Kaplan. “I find myself wondering if it wouldn’t simply make more sense to adjudicate on whether the ball has been passed forward. In this regard, I guess we should bear in mind that it isn’t always easy to pass the ball backwards when you are running at speed.”

As far as referees in general are concerned, Kaplan says his personal favourite is the Welshman, Nigel Owens, but Jérôme Garcès has his supporters. Garcès, a Frenchman, will be taking charge of the Springboks’ opening game against the All Blacks in Yokohama in two weeks’ time, and might conceivably be there at the very end of the tournament too.

“In general, I think a very good group of referees have been assigned the key games early on in the tournament,” says Kaplan, who was a touch judge in the 1999 World Cup, and referee in three consecutive World Cups in 2003, 2007, and 2011.

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