This is a big game this weekend, but I’m still not quite sure how to feel about how it might turn out. Even more than during the Six Nations, in this tournament there are so many factors in play. Can we beat the Springboks?
We Should Be Bricking It
Our starting XV has 329 caps between them, while our bench has 293. Even without Victor Matfield and the recently enforced retirement of Jean de Villiers, the South African starting XV weighs in at 716 – more than our combined total, with a further 266 caps on the bench. Take out replacements Ross Ford and Sean Lamont who are in the 90+ range – especially as Ford rarely plays like someone fast closing in on 100 caps for his country – and we’re seriously lacking in top test match experience which is exactly what you need if we do happen to find ourselves closing in on an unlikely victory.
We also have to worry about the Boks playing for national pride. If Scotland lose, outside of social media, this blog, and the other hubs of Scottish rugby fandom dotted about (there are not that many), the wider country will be mostly nonplussed.
“Shouldn’t South Africa beat us anyway?” they’ll ask. “World Cup, what’s that?”
On the other hand if South Africa lose, some of them may not be able to go home, such would be the outpouring of hysteria and national shame at having lost to Japan and Scotland. We’re just trying to keep improving and get the squad to a stage where results come naturally, where we can rely on getting out of the group stages or challenging for Six Nations honours. South Africa are playing for their rugby lives, because losing to teams like us twice in a fortnight is just not what Springboks do and they’ll all have to fall on their biltong skewers.
I also worry if the Bosh vs Bash method is the best way to play the Springboks. Our Scotland team has been picked with one eye on defence and the other on physicality, on not being muscled aside. This leaves not much room for creativity. While you can make ground on South Africa by fronting up to their physicality as Scotland did a few years back in the quadrangular tournament, you need a team ready to strike when those half chances present themselves.
I suppose the team picked is less likely to crumble if they do have a sleepy start in attack, but conversely: is this team capable of the attacking turnaround we saw in the second halves against Japan and the USA?
Our most creative players are Finn Russell and Mark Bennett; John Hardie was a great link player in the Japan game. All three are sitting this one out. We have a proven finisher in Tim Visser but with Scott and Vernon both strong runners in midfield doing more offloading than passing, a lot of the creative influence from phase play will have to come from Stuart Hogg – one of the (few) players on the park who would have been well studied and will be well watched by the opposition.
The players South Africa have had to replace has arguably strengthened their side, which is now packed with class and power and their young exciting attacking talents. Can we say the same?
You Gotta Stay Positive
On the other hand, there’s just a feeling there that even with this team if they carry out the plan Vern gives them, there’s a chance. As with Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow squad there has been a fairly consistent rotation throughout the pool game, and while some of the players coming in might not be our first choice in their position, they are by no means bad players. Some, like Richie Vernon and Blair Cowan, are actually pretty handy. Fraser Brown thoroughly deserves his chance to show there is actually an alternative to Ross Ford and could have an impact in the loose. You have to rotate your squad if you are playing 3 games in 10 days.
Okay so you might say that there aren’t too many positions where our guy would get into a world XV ahead of their guy but Scotland are never that kind of team. No one is talking up Vernon or Gordy Reid, unlike the pre-tournament previews where Al Dickinson, Russell or Bennett were the ones touted as key men for Scotland. There’s a chance that the opposition won’t be all that familiar with the way they play – although Vernon has beaten South Africa before as a forward.
The South Africans will perhaps revert to their default position which is if not arrogance, supreme confidence in their ability to beat us. Unfortunately the loss to Japan will have focused them somewhat but still there is a good chance we can catch them napping if we start well enough.
We can also expect big games from Josh Strauss, WP Nel and Dave Denton. Denton will be looking to atone for being faceplanted into touch by JP Pieterson during our most recent whipping by the Boks whilst the other pair will be looking to make their inside knowledge of the opposition count: both have attended Springbok training camps in the past, and as a result Meyer’s men have changed the lineout codes.
— South African Rugby (@Springboks) October 1, 2015
The large Glasgow contingent have learned how to win, how to adapt mid game to misfortune and how to pull teams back and never lose belief, but this will be the sternest test of that particular capability. We rarely get to play against the best teams when there is actually something on the line, so tomorrow is perhaps the first real chance for Scotland to show that the Six Nations whitewash was a blip and the team that hammered Argentina and gave New Zealand a fright was the real Scotland.
Lastly we come to the St James’ Park factor. #Homegroundadvantage is the unwieldy Springbok hashtag (use it and they’ll send you a thank you) but with Newcastle the closest World Cup venue to the Scottish border, with any luck we should expect a healthy contingent of Scottish fans and possibly even – unlike previously – the support of the neutrals in Newcastle tomorrow. The Scots usually do okay in noisy football grounds, and we can only hope that the crowd get behind the team and help them focus when they need it most. I’d also hope the game will be close enough to avoid Mexican wave boredom setting in.
It sounds crazy in light of the demolition South Africa gave Samoa, but something tells me we could still win this. Am I mad?