Another cold November evening at BT Murrayfield; another sold out Autumn International. The lights out and a glittering blanket of smartphone stars; the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?
It was something a bit different though this time, as the Springboks came to town, something they hadn’t done since 2013. The last time they did it was a 28-0 outmuscling, and it was a similar bullying Scotland were on the receiving end of in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the latest in a dreary record that reads won 5/26.
Having come close to New Zealand this time last year and beaten pretty much everyone else of note in the last two years, luckily for long suffering Scotland fans our team have changed a bit since then and this was another chance to correct the record of South African dominance.
This time last year you’d have bet the house on it, but South Africa are on a bit of resurgence themselves. The new grey shirts were different, would the outcome be any different?
Scotland started with a nice attacking lineout move but it ended with a penalty against for holding on. The refereeing was indeed perhaps a source of worry, but not as worrying as the ease with which Handre Pollard and zippy scrum-half Embrose Papier side-stepped the Scotland midfield to bits. Backed up by some great offloading by RG Snyman and Steven Kitshoff, Jesse Kriel had the easy job to dive over for the opening score.
Scotland looked confident with ball in hand but perhaps relied a little too much on kicking and there were one or two balls that were dangerously loose to the lightning quick back three South Africa now possess.
Scotland have some skills of their own and it was the midfield partnership of Pete Horne and Huw Jones that sparked the capacity crowd to life with a scintillating try featuring two out-the-back offloads from Jones that also owed plenty to Sean Maitland.
With the scores even and the ground buzzing, Jones sadly undid all the good work by losing the ball in contact and giving the visitors a pretty straightforward try off the ruck for Handre Pollard.
Kitshoff vs Nel was a fascinating battle in the scrum, but the ginger Bok got the best of the first-half exchanges including a penalty which Pollard duly slotted.
Laidlaw took a penalty of his own to keep the scores within 7 points but Scotland were doing a little too much faffing in the middle area of the park. As against Wales, they struggled to build momentum from nothing and the big Springbok forwards were stopping Scotland’s from punching too many holes in the narrow channels.
Scotland may not have such power, but they do have trickery that the Boks aren’t too aware of, including a repeat of the sneak lineout move – Alex Dunbar vs Ireland replaced by Hamish Watson – that earned the openside a try five minutes before half time, coming off the back of a brilliant chip and chase by Stuart Hogg that pressured Willie le Roux to clear into touch.
That left it all square for a few minutes, until Pollard kicked a scrum penalty to restore the visitors lead going into half-time.
Half-time: Scotland 17-20 South Africa
The second half was more of the same, with South Africa led by captain Siya Kolisi imposing themselves physically and occasionally illegally, but Scotland were given some respite when an ill-judged pass from Pete Horne was slapped down by Willie le Roux. Perhaps harshly, he went to the bin for it and Laidlaw restored equality with the penalty kick.
No matter how much more threatening in attack, Scotland are still Scotland though – so they duly fumbled the restart then McInally gave away a defensive penalty which Pollard kicked.
With Reid off and Dell on, the Boks were still mincing the Scottish scrum so Pollard earned more shots at goal. Referee Roman Poite’s arm was pointing the same way as it had in the first half; sadly for Scotland the teams had switched direction.
Huw Jones set the crowd alight (again) with a few scything runs through the heart of the South African midfield, one following a maul for a good 22 metres that had the forward purists purring. As the benches began to empty, Scotland were behind by 3 but playing in the right areas.
With the man advantage they got a little carried away by spurning an equalising penalty kick for a lineout and maul – which ended in a scrum to the visitors. Stuart Hogg was limping badly but still managed to run three-quarters of the pitch to pressure Le Roux chasing his own kick, which shows his commitment. Finn tried to take the pressure off with a long range drop goal which wasn’t all that far off and Hogg went off after that.
Jonny Gray was left in charge, in the absence of the any of the many vice-captains and going into the final ten minutes, that wacky Hastings/Russell combo was back in full effect.
Pollard had a rare missed kick just before he went off, but replacement kicker Elton Jantjies had another chance from the same position just inside the final ten minutes and slotted it to stretch the lead out to six points.
Despite the South African stranglehold on the game, with three minutes to go, Scotland had a penalty for a lineout in the corner, and one last chance. Brown’s lineout was secure but having only managed one really good maul into the Springboks all game, it was almost inevitable that the ball would end up slipping away for a South African scrum, much as this game had after much promise.
Scotland’s attack was less effective once Hogg went off and they seemed to have less ball, but the pack still put in a huge amount of work in defence to try and keep their lads in touch. Bodies were clearly tiring though, and as has almost always been the case, Scotland had no answer to the power of the Boks in the dying stages. Even stealing turnovers seemed to end up with the ball back in dark green hands and forays into South Africa’s 22 were rare in the last quarter.
To go toe-to-toe with South Africa is no bad thing especially after the ease with which they crossed Scotland’s line in the first half, but plenty in the Scotland camp will feel this intriguing test match might be another one that got away.
Referee: Roman Poite (FFR)
SRBlog Man of the Match: Scotland’s most effective attackers all afternoon were Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones, but the centre nicks it for those two cheeky offloads during the games best try.