Springboks head coach Rassie Erasmus has doubled down on a claim by one of his assistants that referees give the world's best team a slightly easier ride, and that there is a more level playing field now that the All Blacks have dropped to No2.
Erasmus was at pains to explain how much respect the Boks have for the All Blacks, who they play in their World Cup opener in Yokohama on Saturday, but he said it was human nature for officials to give more respect to a highly successful team.
"In 2009 when the Springboks were really the No1 team in the world, and in 1999 when I played and we were on a 17-test roll, you get a lot of support from fans, opposition and respect from referees," he said when asked to clarify the comments made this week by assistant Mzwandile Stick.
"Even referees buy into that respect because you're playing so well referees find it almost hard to penalise you in 50-50 decisions. I think the way rugby has evolved the last year or so, all teams are so close. England beat Wales and Wales beat England. Australia played New Zealand and it's a 40-point game and New Zealand gave them a hiding the next week.
"I think the gap between the teams has just shrunk so much. Because New Zealand were No1 in the world for so long… they had so much respect on every level, even from referees, and I think that's a well-known fact. In the tough times when teams were under the pump some of the 50-50 calls went their [All Blacks'] way. They deserved that for being No1 for so long.
"That pre-conceived idea that this team will beat this team, that's gone. Now any team can beat any team.
"Referees should be open-minded going into test matches, which they are at the moment."
Frenchman Jerome Garces will be in charge on Saturday and should consider himself put on notice, although All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is likely to have one or two thoughts of his own when he announces his side tomorrow.
Still basking in the result of the test the last time these two teams met – a comeback 16-16 draw in Wellington in July which he curiously described as a victory – Erasmus has named an unchanged line-up for this test. His confidence in his side, who have improved hugely over the last two years, is obvious, but he did allow for the prospect of defeat.
Ireland are now the No1 team in the world after they took over from Wales, with the All Blacks retaining their No2 spot in the convoluted rankings system.
But Erasmus, perhaps sensing negative headlines with his long explanation on the mindset of match officials, was in no doubt as to which team was the best in the world. The Boks are officially ranked at No4.
"It's always a pity when one gets misquoted… but we will always have massive respect for the All Blacks. This is massive. Not because they're No1 in the world but because there's so much history between us. There's always been the rivalry on the field but off the field there's great respect between the coaches and players.
"Getting smashed 57-0 two years ago was really a low for us. We had to hit rock bottom before we built up. We were really lucky to win that test match in Wellington – that's how we felt.
"It would be bad and sad to lose it because we would lose a little bit of belief but it doesn't end if we lose it; like Steve also says.
"In my opinion the No1 team in the world. Although the world rankings say they are No2, I think they're No1 in the world. "