De Villiers tries to defuse referee row

The South Africa coach yesterday, backed down from his claim that the referees had favoured New Zealand in the opening two matches of the Tri Nations.

BRISBANE, Australia // Peter de Villiers, the South Africa coach, yesterday, backed down from his claim that the referees had favoured New Zealand in the opening two matches of the Tri Nations. The Springboks lost both games against the 2011 Rugby World Cup hosts with De Villiers suggesting the All Blacks were helped to victory by the Irish officials in a bid to boost interest in next year's event.

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 during ? the interview was based on the general view that part of the success of any World Cup event rests on the fact that the host nation has a winning team. Nevertheless, I regret that this may have created the wrong impression."

The row had threatened to overshadow the world champions' build-up to today's meeting with Australia in Brisbane. John Smit, the Springboks captain, insists the players remain fully focused on registering their first victory 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. "I'm not too sure what's going on and the only task we can really give ourselves is fixing what goes on the field."

"As players there's always going to be sideshows, but our job is pretty simple: to get it right on the field." Adding to the scrutiny of the Springboks has been a media focus on their aggressive tactics. But despite the visitors missing two of their first-choice players to suspension, Smit says labelling his side as dirty is unfair and does no justice to their world-class calibre. "I think if bashing was the only strength we had we wouldn't have achieved all the things we have over the past three or four years," he said.

"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." According to the Wallabies camp, David Pocock, the open-side flanker, 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 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.

Rocky Elsom, the Australia captain, was another predicting a dominant showing from Pocock at the breakdown. "He's performed really well so far this year," he said. "He's the only genuine on-baller out there and he'll do a really good job of that." However, the Zimbabwe-born Pocock played down his importance, and remained wary of the danger in facing a Springboks line-up desperate for redemption. "South Africa is such a proud rugby nation, and having lived there for a bit you know how much it means to the public and how much it must mean to be a Springbok," he said. "To lose three games in a row for them is unheard of. It just doesn't happen. So we're expecting a very fired up Springbok team to come out of that dressing room."

* PA