De Villiers takes back conspiracy theory about Tri-Nations refs

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The Independent Online

Peter de villiers, the South Africa coach, has backed down from his claim that the referees favoured the All Blacks in the opening two matches of the Tri-Nations.

The Springboks lost both games against the World Cup hosts, with De Villiers suggesting New Zealand were helped to victory by the Irish officials in an effort to boost interest in next year's tournament.

But in a South Africa Rugby statement yesterday he said: "While I have also expressed unhappiness over some refereeing issues, this is a separate matter altogether and has no bearing on what I said. My comment was based on the general view that part of the success of any World Cup rests on the fact that the host nation has a winning team. Nevertheless, I regret that this may have created the wrong impression."

The controversy had threatened to overshadow the Springboks' build-up to today's meeting with Australia in Brisbane, but their captain, John Smit, insists the players remain fully focused on registering their first win of the tournament. "I think it's probably helpful that we don't have too much time to get involved in the papers and websites when we're losing," he said.

Adding to the scrutiny of the underperforming Springboks has been the media focus on their aggressive game plan. But Smit insisted that labelling his side as dirty was unfair and did the World Cup holders no justice.

"I think if bashing was the only strength we had we wouldn't have achieved all the things we have over the last three or four years," he said yesterday. "Sometimes you have to bash it, but not all the time. We've got to make sure we play the way we can and then we'll have a fair chance of winning tomorrow."

According to the Wallabies' camp, the open-side flanker David Pocock could be the key to their chances of victory as he is the only genuine ball-gatherer on the field.

Pocock established himself as a genuine world-class forward against the Springboks during the corresponding Tri-Nations match in Brisbane last year, and against the physical South Africans his influence will be vital.

The Australia captain, Rocky Elsom, was another predicting a dominant showing from Pocock at the breakdown. "He's performed really well so far this year," Elsom said. "He's the only genuine on-baller out there and he'll do a really good job of that."