It was bliss for a while: a game painted in garishly bright colours, electric with malice and full to overflowing with the overt physicality that makes this the most demanding of all team sports. That it ended so miserably, with the hapless Samoans falling off the tackles they were raised to make as a point of honour and leaking tries to the Springbok wings as a result, was largely the fault of the New Zealand referee, Paul Honiss, whose performance plumbed depths previously unvisited by officials at a World Cup, including his good self. And he has a fair bit of history in this regard, does Honiss.
Argentina have just about stopped complaining about Honiss's handling of the opening match in the 2003 tournament. To judge by the reaction of such mighty rugby figures as the coach Michael Jones, perhaps the greatest of all open-side flankers, and Semo Sititi, a captain held in the highest esteem wherever the game is played, it will take Samoa a lot longer than four years to erase this one from the memory.
"I'd like to think referees don't take the field with the perception that so-called lesser teams do not understand the rules as well as the big teams," said Jones, who played his rugby with the All Blacks, the biggest team of the lot. "Please know that we fully commend South Africa for their victory, but players like those I coach, who give their hearts and souls to be at a tournament like this, need a few things to go their way. The try he disallowed just after half-time was a big turning point, for if we had scored then the outcome would have been totally different. I'm not saying we would have won, but it wouldn't have been 59-7."
It was a measured response, typical of the man. Sititi was harsher in his judgement. "I don't know whether I'll be fined for saying this, but I was very disappointed with the referee," he said. "I told him: 'There are two teams out here playing, not one.' Always these decisions go against us, and they have an effect. The jersey we wear represents the heart, the passion and the aspirations of our whole people, but the spirit does drop when things happen as they did today."
Honiss made a series of calls either side of the interval that crushed the islanders' effort as an insect is crushed under the heel of a giant. He had already played a blinder on behalf of the Boks by declining to send Schalk Burger, their brilliant flanker, to the sin bin for a highly dangerous mid-air tackle on Junior Polu. Then, with the outsiders within a score at 14-7 and playing with a ferocity their opponents could barely withstand, the referee awarded South Africa a scrummage close to the opposition line despite protests from Samoa that the half was over. From that set piece, Percy Montgomery scored his side's second try.
There was still a game to be enjoyed, though, especially when the Samoan lock Joe Tekori crossed from a ruck in the moments directly after the break. Honiss decreed that he was offside and awarded a penalty to the Boks, much to the disgust of the islanders. A few minutes later, the aggrieved had their noses rubbed in it once more when a marginal call at a breakdown resulted in a try for Jaque Fourie.
From that point on, the game entered no-contest territory, with Bryan Habana, perhaps the only human being capable of ducking and sprinting simultaneously, racing away down the left to score at will.
John Smit, the Bok captain, had his own serious problems with Honiss a few years back. Yesterday, he praised him to the high heavens. "That was one of his best games," Smit said. Well, he would have done, wouldn't he?
The South Africans would probably have won, even had Honiss been as accomplished as the English referee Tony Spreadbury had been on the opening night in Saint-Denis. Their line-out was far too good for the Samoan version, which is one of the worst around. They scrummaged heavily when the islanders were at their most vulnerable, and in Bakkies Botha and Juan Smith they had forwards blessed with the warrior spirit. Botha was at his most evident when the fur was flying. He has more of the Martin Johnson about him every time he plays.
England must confront both sides in the next 13 days, and beat one of them to make the last eight. The Boks will be terribly difficult opponents. So too will be the Samoans, if ever they get an even break.
South Africa: P Montgomery (Natal Sharks); J P Pietersen (Natal Sharks), J Fourie (Golden Lions), J de Villiers (Western Province), B Habana (Blue Bulls); B James (Natal Sharks), F du Preez (Blue Bulls); O du Randt (Free State), J Smit (Natal Sharks, capt), C J van der Linde (Free State), B Botha (Blue Bulls), V Matfield (Blue Bulls), S Burger (Western Province), J Smith (Free State), D Rossouw (Blue Bulls). Replacements: F Steyn (Natal Sharks) for De Villiers, 43; BJ Botha (Natal Sharks) for Du Randt, 52; A Pretorius (Golden Lions) for James 59; W van Heerden (Blue Bulls) for Rossouw, 59; B du Plessis (Natal Sharks) for Smit, 64; E Januarie (Golden Lions) for Du Preez, 66; J Muller (Natal Sharks) for B Botha, 66; Du Randt for Van der Linde, 71.
Samoa: D Lemi ( Bristol); L Fa'atau (Glasgow), G Williams (Ponsonby), J Meafou (Scopa), A Tuilagi (Leicester); E Fuimaono-Sapulu ( Bath), J Polu (North Harbour); J Va'a (Glasgow), M Schwalger (Wellington), C Johnston ((Saracens), J Tekori (Waitekere), K Thompson (Otago), D Leo (Wasps), S Sititi (DTT Docomo Kansai), H Tuilagi (Perpignan). Replacements: A Vaeluaga (Bristol) for H Tuilagi, 57; B Lima (Bristol) for Fa'atau, 59; E Seveali'i (Sale) for Meafou, 59; L Crichton (Worcester) for Fuimaono-Sapulu, 59; J Purdie (Wellington) for Tekore, 60; K Lealamanua (Dax) for Va'a, 64; T Fuga (Harlequins) for Lima, 67.
Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand).Reuse content