South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus has played down the impact the assault allegations against Eben Etzebeth have had on the Springboks in the lead-up to Saturday’s fascinating World Cup opener versus New Zealand in Yokohama.
The Springboks lock has refuted allegations that he had racially abused and attacked a man in the Langebaan area of Cape Town prior to the squad’s departure for Japan. However, the matter is still under investigation.
“When it first happened, it was not ideal but as I have said numerous times when I sat down with Eben, I have been coaching him since he was 18 at the Stormers and Western Province. I know him as a person and I have got a good relationship with him and when he tells me something, I believe him.
“There is a thorough investigation currently in South Africa and if something comes out of that, I’m going to believe what he tells me. We are going to co-operate fully with the authorities in South Africa, and whenever something from their side comes up and they want something to be done, we will fully co-operate with that.
“The players know his personality, I know his personality. In the team environment, spot-on – there have been no disruptions.”
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Switching to Saturday’s all-important clash with the defending champions, which will be refereed by France’s Jerome Garces, Erasmus is hoping that the current competitiveness at the top level of Test rugby will ensure that no one side will be favoured and the match official won’t be a talking point in the game’s aftermath.
“If you have been there like we were in 2009 when the Springboks were the No1 team in the world and in 1998 when we were on that 17-Test match (win) roll, you get a lot of support from fans, opposition, respect, and also from referees,” he said.
“There is certainly a time when you get that respect and even referees buy into that respect. Because you are playing so well, referees tend to almost find it tough to penalise you in 50-50 decisions.
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“The way rugby has evolved in the last year or so, all teams are so close currently. The point is at this stage, it is tough to say. Now Ireland are No1, then Wales, then England, and South Africa are No4. I just think that pre-conceived idea that this team can’t beat the other team is gone.
“This is a World Cup where any team can beat any team. That is the way it should be – referees should be open-minded going into Test matches – which they are currently.
“It’s big, massive,” he added about Saturday’s sense of importance playing the All Blacks. “There are a lot of emotions going into this. I played against the All Blacks in the World Cup for the bronze medal in 1999. That wasn’t a great experience – we did win the game, but it wasn’t the nicest feeling playing in the third/fourth place play-off.
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“I’ve coached against them prior to the World Cup in 2011, which was also a preparation match in Port Elizabeth, then the last three Test matches, but this is the first time in the World Cup that I am part of the coaching team, as the head coach.
“(I have) a lot of emotions, which vary from excitement to nerves to pride. This is a big game for us, not just in terms of advancing to play-off mode, but just the history between us and New Zealand.
“There is a lot at stake in terms of pride and respect between the countries and as a head coach, it makes me really proud to be with these boys in this match and knowing that both teams have equal chances in this match.
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“The thing that makes it special is that if you ask anybody right now who is going to win this Test match, then I don’t think anybody can bet on the two teams. I guess we think we have a really good chance, and if you ask (All Blacks coach) Steve (Hansen) and them, they will think they have a really good chance.
“They now know what our team looks like and it’s a massive build-up. We are enjoying it thoroughly and when it comes to Friday evening and Saturday morning the nerves will get more.
“It will be very sad if we lose on Saturday but it’s not the end and then the Italy game becomes really important to come out of the pool. If you lose, you always lose a bit of confidence and then you have to rebuild again. Although the world ranking says they are No2, I think they are No1 in the world,” he continued before addressing concerns the match in Yokohama will be affected by rain.
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“It’s going to be a massive challenge with the rain they are predicting. Even if it doesn’t rain, everybody is talking about the humidity and slippery ball and the arms being wet. Kicking is going to play a big part but somehow you have to score points, and you can’t just get it by penalties and drop goals.
“Scoring from bad kicks and fielding kicks and living off those bad kicks is going to play a big part. Kick execution is going to be important and then the fielding of kicks and really pouncing on kicks is going to be a big part of it.”
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