New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe found himself at the centre of a controversial Rugby World Cup moment, with his early call favouring the Springboks keeping them on track as they went on to beat hosts France 29-28 in their quarter-final.
With the reigning champions hard on defence on their own tryline and already trailing 7-0 after just six minutes, lock Eben Etzebeth swatted at a ball that was passed to the outside runners by French winger Damien Penaud.
The big lock was the last man in the Bok defensive line, with two French runners steaming on to the ball just metres from the tryline.
Referee O’Keeffe ruled that the ball had been deflected backwards. A penalty decision would have possibly led to a penalty try, with the two French runners unopposed, and a likely yellow card to match the one shown to All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith in yesterday’s stunning quarter-final.
The Springboks immediately went down the other end, where Etzebeth was involved again, competing for a high ball and disrupting the French defenders to allow the ball to bounce free for winger Kurt-Lee Arendse to score.
The reversal meant the World Cup hosts had gone from a 14-0 prospect to a 7-7 slugfest in less than two minutes.
Etzebeth was immense throughout the dramatic match, scoring a crucial try before being subbed in the 71st minute. He made 10 tackles on a night when brutal hits flowed – the Springboks made 163 tackles to France’s 92.
The match opened at a frantic pace, with five tries in 26 minutes, but with 10 substitutes taking the field in the space of five minutes at the start of the second half, the rhythm of the game faltered.
South Africa ultimately outscored the hosts by four tries to three.
French rugby followers took to social media to express their displeasure with the Kiwi whistler’s performance.
O’Keeffe, who speaks French, was in charge when the Springboks were defeated 13-8 by Ireland in pool play, getting the big decisions right in a pressure cooker match.
After that game, Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus sent a congratulatory message to the referee and other match officials, paying tribute to their performance.
“Congrats to the Irish and sorry (South Africa),” Erasmus said. “We will just work harder and make you proud! Also nice to be involved in a game so intense and physical without the referee getting too much involved! Well done Ben and your team. Thank you (South Africa) for all the support was really lekka !! (maar hartseer)”
He also refereed at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The Kiwi ended up penalising both teams six times in an enthralling encounter, the fewest penalties of the four quarter-finals. The earlier quarter-final today between England and Fiji, with Frenchman Mathiue Raynal in charge, featured 22 penalties.
O’Keeffe is a qualified doctor specialising in ophthalmology, which goes against the old catchcry from the stands that a referee should get their eyes tested.
According to a screengrab shared on social media the Kiwi’s Wikipedia page was updated to read: “He is an ophthalmologist and a fan of South Africa”.