Rassie Erasmus of South Africa during the South African national rugby team announcement at Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel on September 18, 2019 in Urayasu, Japan. Picture: STEVE HAAG / GALLO IMAGES / GETTY IMAGES
Rassie Erasmus of South Africa during the South African national rugby team announcement at Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel on September 18, 2019 in Urayasu, Japan. Picture: STEVE HAAG / GALLO IMAGES / GETTY IMAGES

Tokyo — The shrill of the referee’s whistle‚ history has shown‚ can have chilling if not grave consequences for teams in the knockout stages of a Rugby World Cup.

By definition those matches are often delicately balanced and at a tournament that is widely expected to be the most closely contested yet‚ their role will come under even more scrutiny at the 2019 instalment.

Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus‚ whose team plays the All Blacks in their opening pool match on Saturday‚ first flippantly brought up the matter before he addressed it head on when pressed by the New Zealand media on Wednesday.

Saturday’s pool match, to be refereed by France’s Jérôme Garcès, does not carry the weight of a knockout contest‚ but it may well shape the rest of the tournament.

“I think our boys have a really good chance‚” Erasmus said of his team’s prospects. “Steve [Hansen‚ the All Blacks coach] will think they’ve got a really good chance and hopefully the referee is not too sure‚” said Erasmus.

The last bit of that response invited a follow-up question which forced Erasmus into a potential mine field‚ one in which he tiptoed with forethought and poise.

“In 2009 when SA was the No 1 team in the world and in 1999 when I played after that 17-Test unbeaten run you get a lot of respect from fans‚ opposition and the referees‚” said Erasmus.

“Even referees buy into that respect because you are playing so well. Referees tend to find it tough to penalise you in those 50/50 decisions.

“I think the way rugby has evolved in the past year or so‚ because all teams are so close now ... the gap between the teams has shrunk so much.

“New Zealand were No 1 in the world for so long. They had so much respect from the referees. It was a well-known fact. In those tough times those 50/50 decisions went their way because they deserved it as the No 1 team. That preconceived idea of this team has gone. This is that World Cup where any team can beat any team.

“You have to be open-minded when you go into Test matches. I think they are, now‚” Erasmus said in a thumbs-up to the officialdom.

That things have improved will be a source of huge comfort to fans who have travelled vast distances to get here.

Few rugby-loving South Africans will forget New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence’s cruel hand in their World Cup exit at the hands of the Wallabies at the 2011 tournament. The referee was roundly lambasted and the fallout and criticism he received contributed to him not touring SA again and was dropped from the elite panel the following year.

Four years earlier, the Kiwis had English ref Wayne Barnes in the crosshairs for failing to spot a forward pass that saw them tumble out of the tournament at the hands of France.

Four years later France lamented the performance of SA’s Craig Joubert in the final‚ while Scotland were left with a bitter taste in the mouth following the same referee’s handling of their match against the Wallabies.