Nobody really expected anything from this one, at least outside of Scotland. There was lip-service paid to Scotland’s 5th place ranking and entertaining approach to the game, but no one really believed they actually had a chance against a South African team who had smashed the All Blacks weeks before.
On paper it was a brutally difficult task, with the main question being could Scotland’s wide, flair game somehow find room to flourish in the face of the typically physical South African onslaught? In recent years, Scotland have asked the questions but the Springboks had shut them down before there was a hint of an answer.
The other big worry was whether this might be a repeat of the Ireland opener in 2019, with a lot of sound and fury signifying very little once the whistle started the game.
In the end, I’m not really sure if it was better, or worse.
The first half was a curious affair, with restart errors, dropped high kicks, charge downs and many of the fingernail-shortening features we’ve seen from Scotland for decades. Yet despite that, they were dealing with them, or rather: South Africa were not ruthlessly exploiting them. The errors seemed like a natural extension of being pressed harder than perhaps they have ever been, rather than just down to general hopelessness.
Finn Russell was penalised for a deliberate knock-on in the first quarter, and after a water break in the heat of Marseille Sione Tuipulotu was penalised for his first carry and that was 6-0.
Manie Libbok was missing kicks at goal which excused (slightly) Finn’s arm free barge on Kurt-Lee Arendse. Scotland had the barest toehold in the game, but it was still a toehold. They might have had a bigger one had the TMO decided to review an upright hit on Jack Dempsey in the early minutes that seemed like a clear case of head contact.
Even the Springboks going to the bench earlier than they might have wanted seemed like good fortune, as Etzebeth lasted only half an hour – clearly something Jamie Ritchie said to him in the game’s one spell of Zandbags psyched him out – even if the replacement was the gargantuan RG Snyman who in the second half added a Nakarawan offloading option to South Africa’s play.
The one hope was that Scotland could get behind the South African defenders rushing out of the line to crowd the wide spaces Finn likes to pass into. It happened once – just once when Kriel went too fast – and suddenly Darcy Graham was in space, he dummied and got past one man but with both the otherwise quiet Duhan van der Merwe and Blair Kinghorn outside him he really should have passed for a near-certain run-in try. That one will likely haunt a few dreams. It was also noticeable that it was a rare use of their highly effective “boot” shape much discussed by Squidge over on YouTube that was barely seen again.
The lineout had been almost universally awful and effectively destroyed any attacking platform Scotland had chiselled out, but somehow Schoeman, Turner and Fagerson had the scrum under control. The thought of Scotland repelling a lineout drive, turning the scrum into a penalty then winning another scrum – off their own knock-on – to end the half seemed unlikely, but there it was.
Finn slotted the penalty to half the margin, to a huge roar from the crowd. Given Scotland’s boost in second-half performances all through the year, was there an upset on the cards?
Half-time: South Africa 6-3 Scotland
Scotland, traditionally this year, improve in their second halves once they figure out what’s going wrong – the thing was that they didn’t really have a way to stop South Africa pressuring them to the point of implosion, and that was what was going on.
If the World Champion Springboks had been a little hard to spot during the first half in the face of a strong Scottish rearguard, the second half served as a fair warning to the rest of the tournament. Sadly Scotland were the lambs, in this particular metaphor.
The South African pack splintered their Scottish counterparts at the first scrum of the half, and although Libbok missed that kick as well, there was a notable increase in pace and intensity from the World Champion’s ball carriers as they cruised into the Scottish 22.
They were too many, and too big, so it was nearly impossible to keep Pieter-Steph du Toit out when it came to his turn. The conversion was missed but despite the mountain of points the Boks left either side of the posts, their defence was shackling Russell and the Scottish attack to the point that a way back into the game seemed impossible.
That light at the end of the tunnel finally went out following arguably South Africa’s only “beautiful” moment of the game, a no-look cross-field kick from Libbok to Arendse that one imagines Finn Russell could only admire as the Boks picked up an easy five points. Faf de Klerk – who was a thorough nuisance to White and Price all game – took over the kicking and duly made it seven.
There were a few chances but we had to look after the ball better. Set-piece to launch-off. It’s what they do though, they put your set-piece under pressure, they put your skills under pressure and they put your contact skills under pressure by the way they contest every ruck. We did know it was coming but it’s still tough to deal with.Rory Darge
Scotland’s defence was for the most part, actually excellent. They made more dominant and turnover tackles than South Africa and missed fewer; improbably South Africa gave away more turnovers. South Africa threatened to run riot in the second half but they didn’t score again.
The massive problem across the whole match was South Africa’s approach to their own defence. Every tackle seemed to have two or three men in toothpaste green challenging for the ball and hard to shift, forcing Scotland to spend players who would rather have been attacking. Their speed to the ball was too fast, and too furious. Furthermore those players, once shifted, were in no hurry to move out of the Scotland half’s way. All of which slowed the ball down so that when Scotland went again, there was precious little room for manoeuvre and a fresh line of Boks already up in their faces.
Having spilled so much ball in the tackle, Scotland perhaps felt holding on to it was an effort enough but it would have been nice to see a few more chip kicks in behind the defensive line to keep the “shooters” honest. Finn looked for the pass so many times only to see an opponent already up level with one of the Huwipulotus, who were sadly anonymous in attack. The first chip happened on 65 minutes and asked no real questions.
Scotland knew they would get a handful of chances in the game – in the end it turned out to be just three or four if we are being generous – and they had to capitalise. Finn kicked a lovely 50:22 but Scotland played the quick lineout incorrectly. Price had a half chance late in the game but his grubber bumbled into touch when it had to pop up into the arms of Kinghorn.
The top carrying stats in the game make sobering reading for Scotland’s forwards coach – Schoeman (5) and Dempsey (10) are the only forwards and substitutes Cam Redpath and Ollie Smith both make an appearance despite playing less than 20 minutes. The right to go wide had not been earned.
If there was a difference in the end, it was the benches. We knew about the “bomb squad” and also worried about the deficiencies in our front-row replacements. So it proved with WP Nel and Jamie Bhatti sadly not able to compete with South Africa’s pack. Too many penalties followed, and too little improvement in the other areas.
I don’t think the general emotions have changed. There is still an air of disappointment, let an opportunity slip. I think we all understand we weren’t at our best and that’s a real shame.Brad Mooar, Scotland Attack Coach
Scotland held the World Champions for a half, and fronting up physically is something to be proud of. But ultimately, they have to find a way to fire the shots we know they can when a team like this shuts them down. Scotland are not secretive about the way they play. They’ve been closed down before and “we didn’t execute the plan” begs the question as to what the plan was, and is there ever a Plan B? Because there needs to be.
It’s very dispiriting to believe fiercely in a team when the rest of the rugby-watching world is operating on the evidence of their eyes and sees no reason to believe this team are anything more than the sum of their results.
A score of 6-7 at half-time with a man advantage might have seen a different end to the story, but unfortunately that fairy tale is off in the megaverse. In this reality Scotland’s World Cup will need to start again; it will be a fight for survival.
SRBlog Player of the Match: The starting props both had games to be proud of and Finn was hugely brave (alongside a few howlers there was the 50:22 and that tap tackle) but Number 8 Jack Dempsey topped the tackling and carrying charts and ran into contact with reckless disregard even after a dangerous hit inside the first two minutes. He’ll be at the centre of any Scottish resurgence in this tournament.