There was a great atmosphere at Murrayfield today as a near-capacity crowd were warmed up with a mixture of bagpipes and guns and allegedly a plane – although only George Clancy could see it.
Sadly the spectacle on the pitch didn’t really match up to it as the opening exchanges followed the aerial theme with plenty of kicking. The South African half-backs Lambie and Pienaar were clearly intent on testing the Scottish back three – Visser in particular – under the high ball. With a probing game-plan, the Boks went looking for weaknesses and found ref George Clancy willing to reward their endeavours.
For their first penalty although it was kickable, South Africa opted for some mauling practice but got in each other’s way. Worryingly though, they were clearly confident they had the skill and power to rumble over Scotland.
Conversely when Scotland were on the ball, the South African tacklers were well up to the challenge of smaller Scottish players looking to make ground. The home team though were betrayed by their own exuberance, pinged first for offside then a breakdown offence, gifting South Africa a kick they couldn’t ignore.
After Hogg was caught in possession deep in his own half, Francois Louw smashed Richie Gray so hard that a concerned Clancy stopped play. The big man was on his feet before long but groggy with it, and Scotland were facing a scrum defending their own line. They cleared the danger but South Africa came back at them with the usual ferocity, maul back in action.
On 20 minutes the Boks crossed the line suspiciously easily as the maul finally clicked. The shaky Gray was taken off immediately thereafter and Al Kellock strode on.
It was around then we saw the first of the much heralded Ruan Pienaar with a half break. He was kept at bay pretty well all day but with the score at 3-11 South Africa didn’t need to attack all that cleverly; Scotland needed a period of consistent possession.
With Gray off it was left to Grant and Denton to do the smash-it-up ball carrying and they did so to raucous cheers, but from 1 to 15 the South Africans were a solid wall of dark green.
At 3-14 after half an hour, Scotland could get penalties easily enough but not in the right areas. South Africa on the other hand were slowly building their points total as the Scots struggled to make headway.
After a rare line-out close to the opposition line, Scotland were penalised for holding on almost under the posts which killed momentum – the story of the day. Although such behaviour seems odd when clearly they would want quick ball.
The penalty count killed Scotland in the first half despite South Africa scarcely threatening our try line. With the points coming from the boot, they didn’t have to.
The second half started scrappily too but at least Clancy getting caught in the thick of things gave the crowd a little cheer. The game was still being played by Scotland in their own half and naturally South Africa were all too comfortable with that.
We even saw Hogg being stepped by an openside and not a small one either. Then things went from comical to worse as a telegraphed pass from Mike Blair had him feeling like Dan Carter (and not in a good way), as Strauss intercepted and ambled over unchallenged for the try.
As a dejected Blair left the field – hooked instantly to be replaced by Pyrgos – Bok tails were up and they were content to let Scotland batter away at them.
However they were caught napping as a perfectly timed Kelly Brown pass from 12ft up in the air at a smoothly executed lineout sent Pyrgos clean through for a try on only his second cap.
The home try got the crowd in full voice and some errors from the visitors threatened a real momentum shift as the backs finally got involved. Denton and Matt Scott in particular were instrumental in getting and keeping the team moving forward, while the excellent Pyrgos clearly came on with a brief to increase the pace.
Denton, Grant and Scott were all good again this week but again there were a few players quiet, like De Luca, who really needs big stand-out moments to silence his critics. Hogg was again not given enough ball in space (there was in truth little space for even his fast feet) and Visser learned what it was like for a Scotland winger in less recent times as he had little chance to make an impact.
The usual round of bench changes with 12 minutes to play left Scotland with an awfully big mountain to climb 11 points adrift. They battled hard but just couldn’t get the ball over the line despite a wealth of possession. South Africa were happy to shut up shop especially at the endless scrums and watch the chances and the seconds tick past.
Scotland had a man advantage for the last five minutes and hammered the Bok line again and again, but the passes were forced and the usual little errors crept in at just the wrong moments.
Another score early in that period could have seen a real surprise result, but there was in the end little that was surprising.
They would have been worth another score, but in the end the win was just a little too much to ask against such a South African defence that gave them so little when it really mattered.
Post match reaction to follow…
Scotland: Hogg, Lamont, De Luca, Scott, Visser, Laidlaw, Blair; Grant, Ford, Murray, Gray, Hamilton, Brown, Barclay, Denton
Bench: Hall, Traynor, Cross, Kellock, McInally, Pyrgos, Jackson, Murchie
South Africa: Kirchner, Pieterson, De Jongh, De Villiers, Hougaard, Lambie, Pienaar; Steenkamp, Strauss, Du Plessis, Etzebeth, Kruger, Louw, Alberts, Vermeulen
Bench: Brits, Van Der Merwe, Van Der Linde, Van Der Merwe, Coetzee, Steyn, Taute, Mvovo