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South Africa ‘got it wrong’ with past referee criticism, admits Rassie Erasmus

South Africa’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, has sought to highlight his side’s improving relationship with referees before their quarter‑final against France on Sunday, conceding they “got it wrong” in the past.

The world champions will meet the host nation at Stade de France in arguably the most eagerly awaited of four blockbuster last-eight ties. The former Munster coach infamously recorded a video during the 2021 British & Irish Lions series criticising the referee, Nic Berry, following the touring side’s victory in the first Test.

He was subsequently banned for 10 months by World Rugby, and then suspended for two matches last November after highlighting decisions by Wayne Barnes in a narrow defeat by France.

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With officiating sure to be under the spotlight over the weekend – Ben O’Keeffe of New Zealand was confirmed on Tuesday as the referee for their match – Erasmus adopted a conciliatory tone.

“For us the first word is respect,” Erasmus said on Tuesday. “I think definitely we got it wrong at stages, especially when we had the year off [due to Covid] in 2020, and then we went into the Lions series … the level of communication was really tough. I guess on both sides it led to frustration.”

Erasmus invited Nigel Owens, the former referee, to work as a consultant at this World Cup – he turned down the offer but Erasmus said conversations with the Welshman have improved the team’s relations with officials.

“Last year I had a phone call with Nigel and just said: ‘Listen, we really want to get this right. We don’t want people not to like us.’ What we learned from that conversation, no matter if we’re right, the respect you show for the referee, you will get back from the referee, even if he makes mistakes.”

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However, Erasmus also stated his belief that French players have been guilty of “simulation” in exaggerating the impact of high tackles recently – perhaps with one eye on the fact that Antoine Dupont, the France captain, is in contention to play soon after breaking a cheekbone.

Antoine Dupont in training for FranceAntoine Dupont (right) in training before France’s quarter-final against South Africa despite a broken cheekbone. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

“What they do well is that when they get close to the high hits [on them], they really show that to the referee,” Erasmus said.

“I think they do simulate sometimes a little bit, which is clever … sometimes when the referee comms goes down, or the TV doesn’t work at that specific time. I think they’re very clever at that … But they’re not a team that live on the dangerous edge. I think they’re straight up forward, they don’t play with tricks … they just physically man up, and that’s the kind of team that we respect.”

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Erasmus praised Shaun Edwards, the France defence coach, and the head coach, Fabien Galthié, in assessing the size of the Springboks’ task. Les Bleus conceded 32 points in the pool stage, the fewest of any team, with South Africa next best on 34.

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“Wherever Shaun coaches he gives a passion to the team for defence,” Erasmus said. “He’s a very interesting character … him and [the Ireland head coach] Andy Farrell, they come from a league background and bring that league grunt and physicality.

“If we want to do something great, it will never be in ideal circumstances. We’re definitely up against it and not just on the defensive side. They have the home crowd, the improvement that France has shown the last four years … with every department, this will definitely be one of the top games that we have to try and manage.”

South Africa have delayed naming their team until Friday, with Erasmus saying everything remains on the table in regard to the balance of the 23. “We are keeping our options open for a 7-1, 6-2 or 5-3 split. I think we will have everyone available, and seeing what the French team looks like, that might have further influence on us going 7-1 or 6-2.”