It was an ominous start to this odd little test match in Port Elizabeth as South Africa ran at Scotland from the off, then spurned a penalty straight in front of the posts and opted to kick for the corner. It looked like this was a training run for them, which you could take as a mark of disrespect – but on the other hand the Springboks had 7 points on the board before Scotland had touched the ball, so you could see their point.
The inexperienced Scotland squad to their credit came straight back with a Duncan Weir penalty following some good work on the floor by Chris Fusaro.
South Africa’s next try was textbook also as Hogg was left with too much to do facing a three man overlap and Willie Le Roux dove over following simple passing through the hands. The one after that was brilliantly crafted by JP Pietersen who got past opposite number Nick De Luca and chipped through for the speedy Lwazi Mvovo to gather.
When Scotland did have the ball, their carriers were outmuscled 3 to 1 and Glen Jackson was quick to whistle any attempts to slow the possession by either side, and Scotland were on a warning after only quarter of an hour – not to mention 19-3 down. Hogg was a positive force but even his darts through half gaps ended in knock ons by the supporting players.
The few good set piece possessions – for example following a great lineout take and drive – wilted in the midfield, with inaccurate or forced passing in the face of South African pressure.
If nothing else it was a baptism of fire for Adam Ashe playing only his second half hour of professional rugby and doing it at test level, and Grant Gilchrist in his second game as captain you hope would have learned a few tips opposite the old master Victor Matfield.
Other minor positives included Ross Ford finally imposing himself on a game physically, and even getting involved in a bit of niggle. His first half lineout throws were reasonable too.
Just before half time Weir took another penalty and a positive spell from the whole Scotland team led by Pyrgos, Hogg and Maitland, forced South Africa on the back foot for the first time. Scotland did not get near scoring, but it was a small fillip to take them into the half time talk with a stony-faced Vern Cotter.
Scotland came out for the last 40 minutes of a long rugby season hoping more of that same positive energy could somehow be fashioned into tries.
South Africa at least started the second half a bit more warily – if the Boks are ever wary – this time taking the penalty kick to put them 3 scores clear.
When the Scots – Hogg and Seymour in particular – had the ball, they were keeping South Africa on their toes but could sustain quick ball momentum for long enough to make serious inroads.
Unfortunately then Swinson was binned for holding back a player after he had passed the ball. It was perhaps harsh in that instance but something that had been going on all game and Jackson’s patience had been sorely tested. That decision gave the Boks another easy try from a driving lineout and opened the gulf between the teams up even further.
JP Pietersen had an impressive run in his new position of outside centre and when Seymour darted out of the line too early he found space down the line. Despite the best efforts of Tyrone Holmes, Pietersen managed to dot it down for the try.
After that the game broke up as Scotland chased everything. It was scrappy but entertaining in patches. The back three were as lively as they have been all tour but with a 10-13 axis that doesn’t do them any favours they were facing an uphill struggle to create their own chances.
Needless to say there were plenty of opportunities for the Springboks to counter and Mvovo ran in an interception from Pyrgos, and another spilled ball from the scrum half (who had been going well till that point) allowed the funkily named Lood De Jager in for a long range solo try. Not bad for a 6’10” lock, and he claimed a second try in the dying moments.
By the end the scoreboard told a miserable tale as usual and overcast a tour that at least reads: played 4 won 3.
It has been heartening to see a bit of set-piece grit and consistency re-appear on this tour under Gilchrist and we could well see his partnership with (either) Gray run till the World Cup. Elsewhere in the pack we’ve seen the emergence of Reid and Cross as Scotland’s first choice props and Ford fighting Lawson for his spot at hooker so the front 5 is in pretty rude health. The back three too is a choice from Visser, Hogg, Maitland and Seymour, so also little to complain about if everyone’s fit.
Between that though, it’s a mess, with no clear idea of our best back row, half backs and our best centres injured (in the coming weeks we’ll be offering our views on the choices available in all positions).
It has highlighted how badly we miss Scott and Dunbar in the centre, and I would have liked to see Bennett capped this tour (he was unused). Horne has played admirably for Glasgow but has failed to make any sort of ground in midfield at test level. Perhaps he would thrive outside Russell or Jackson, but you have to take your opportunities, like Russell has.
All in all, plenty for Cotter to do at the start of next season.
SRBlog Man of the Match: Tricky to pick. Stuart Hogg was probably the pick of the Scots backs, but had to create his own chances rather than finishing moves and Scotland failed to trouble the line. Up front Geoff Cross had another great game in the scrum and has probably been the pick of the Scots forwards all tour, so I’ll give it to him. That’ll keep the Girth Army happy.