PARIS – England coach Steve Borthwick has delivered a classy response to questions over the impact Kiwi referee Ben O’Keeffe had on South Africa’s narrow World Cup semi-final victory.
The Kiwi ref was already under fire from French players and fans leading into the game following the Boks’ single point quarter-final victory. A French paper reported that World Rugby had found he and his team responsible for five major errors in that epic contest.
O’Keeffe found a late scrum penalty against England on Sunday (AEDT) after Freddie Steward botched a kick that went straight in the air and he then knocked forward. In terms of game impact it was similar to Mat Rogers’ poor kick to touch in the 2003 final that led to the Jonny Wilkinson drop goal winner.
An England World Cup winner that day, Lawrence Dallaglio was the loudest voice in the aftermath of Sunday’s match when he accused O’Keeffe of winning the game for South Africa.
Dallaglio said on UK TV: “I just think in the final analysis we couldn’t build scoreboard pressure. We had a couple of opportunities in the 22, one scrum, one line out that went missing.
“The bomb squad came on, four penalties given away in the last 10 minutes. I’ve got to say, not as a sore loser but independently, that’s a questionable penalty that wins the game.
“Ellis Genge goes down on one knee. Ben O’Keeffe is going to be the talking point because he’s won them the game, rather than South Africa.”
There were plenty of angles shared on social media of the defining penalty, with the debate raging on through the next day.
Borthwick, however, wasn’t taking the bait the morning after his team’s devastating loss.
“I’ve studied the game a couple of times since it finished, as you would expect me to, to fully understand what our learnings are from it. In terms of the individual decisions, I want to make sure we build a team that can ensure we get the results we want. That is our job. From our point of view, I’ll control that,” Borthwick said.
“I’m not going to be sitting talking about referees. I think we have a great standard of officiating at this tournament. I think Ben refereed well yesterday and I think his whole team did a good job. I’ll concentrate on how I can make my team stronger.”
Borthwick accepted that South Africa’s scrum dominance late in the game, when Ox Nche and Vincent Koch matched up against Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler, was a “key factor.”
“As I have discussed with the team over these few months, as we start building our understanding of the game, everything in rugby is connected,” Borthwick said.
“Everything has some kind of knock-on effect in some sort of way, shape or form. What you have got to do is be tactically smart and adaptable. I credit South Africa for how they found a way to get a result from being down on the scoreboard. They are the number one side in the world for a reason.”
On Genge and Sinckler, he said: “We’re all disappointed. We’ve fallen short. We came very close to doing it. In adversity, there’s usually a seed of something that will grow and be brilliant in the future. We’ll make sure we grab that and it makes us stronger.”
While the Springboks early change to drag Manie Libbok and bring on Handre Pollard caught the attention, it was the introduction of Nche that perhaps had the biggest impact on the match swinging towards the Boks.
“The beauty of this squad is there is a great alignment of the players who start and the players who come off the bench. Everyone has a good idea of when the substitutions might happen,” said Springboks assistant Deon Davids.
“The guys who start have to do a specific job for us and the guys off the bench have to do a specific job for us. Sometimes as the game goes on you look at the execution of our plans, the conditions and areas where you can improve or where you look for something different.
‘When the subs came on, first Handre, RG Snyman, Ox Nche, all of those guys came on and brought something different. Also, because there is a close relationship between the guys who start and come off the bench, they were able to bring new energy, execute some new plans, in terms of we had to attack what was in front of us, and I can just applaud all those players for doing that.
“These are the discussions we had as coaches about where we had to do stuff and we are just glad that it worked out for us.”
On Nche, he added: “”That is what you want to get out of coaching, to try to improve the players, to make a difference in their lives on and off the field, and for them to put in the hard work to do that.
“When you look at how these players operate and how much hard work they put in, [it is] how they react with the things that we share with them, trying to track their performance at their franchises, the response of the players towards that to become better.
“And when they come in to camp, to work harder whether they are selected or not, the desire to be part of the squad and perform for their country, to put up a performance like he [Nche] did last night, I think that is tremendous.
“We have been working with him from school, through the under-20s, and now being part of the Springboks team, so to see that development from him as a player and as a person is tremendous and such an inspiring feeling from a coaching perspective.”