Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Scotland v South Africa, Rugby World Cup 2023: Match Preview pt I

South Africa vs Scotland
South Africa vs Scotland - graphic © Scottish Rugby Blog

South Africa

2023 Rugby World CupSun 10th Sep 2023Stade de Marseille, MarseilleKick-off: 4:45 pm (UK)18-3


Referee: Angus Gardner (RA)| TV: ITV1/STV

Live on ITV1

The build-up to this match has seen increasing amounts of the single most dangerous commodity in Scottish rugby – hope. Now this is, of course, a very particular kind of hope, one born of the inherent tendency towards fatalism of Scotland fans, and grounded more in thoughts like ‘maybe it won’t be so bad’ than ‘we’re going to win the World Cup!’

The stats – by and large – are here to puncture even that semi-inflated balloon though when it comes to anticipating getting a flier against the defending world champions, South Africa, in both sides’ first match of the tournament.

Scotland’s only win against a Tier 1 side at a World Cup in the last 32 years was an incredibly narrow victory over Italy in 2007.

Scotland and South Africa’s record in World Cup matches:

SCOv Tier 1 sidesRSA
Win %

SCOv non-Tier 1 sidesRSA
Win %


Scotland have never beaten a side from the Rugby Championship at an RWC.

Scotland have played sides from The Rugby Championship 11 times at World Cups, losing all 11 by an average margin of 15 points.

South Africa have played sides from the Six Nations 12 times at World Cups, winning 11 of those games by an average margin of 16 points. Their only defeat was in the 2003 pool stages when they went down to eventual champions, England.

Scotland have lost 23 of their 28 previous games against the Springboks.

Scotland wins over South Africa:

  • 1906 at Hampden. Scotland 6 – 0 South Africa
  • 1965 at Murrayfield. Scotland 8 – 5 South Africa
  • 1969 at Murrayfield. Scotland 6 – 3 South Africa
  • 2002 at Murrayfield. Scotland 21 – 6 South Africa
  • 2010 at Murrayfield. Scotland 21 – 17 South Africa

South Africa Scouting Report

Maul Or Nothing

It’s one thing to know that South Africa will bring the power when they maul from lineout possession, it’s quite another to find a way to stop it. Referees’ tolerance of teams effectively leaving the lineout to set up their maul defence has shifted some of the initiative away from the attacking side, but even the perfect setup against the Springboks may not be enough to halt their progress.

The change in emphasis does seem to be something that has encouraged South Africa to look at more than just simply overpowering the opposition. Against New Zealand they demonstrated the smartness you’d expect from a side led by Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber. There was the dummy maul that drew in pretty much the entire All Blacks’ pack and gave Malcolm Marx a run-in down the wing. Early on, the subtlest angle on the leap from the Springboks’ jumpers over towards the opposition’s line helped win multiple penalties (as well as contributing to 2 yellow cards, one directly and one indirectly) from Kiwis who were over-eager to get in amongst the South African maul.

Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi have 30 test tries between them and will be expecting to add a good few more over the course of this tournament. Scotland’s 3 hookers can actually point to a slightly better scoring rate (a try for every 142 minutes played v a try for every 172 mins for their Springbok counterparts) but the Scottish maul is not quite at the peak of its powers from 5 or 6 years ago under Dan McFarland.

It’s their defensive efforts that will be the real priority though. Stage 1 is denying the opposition access to the 22 and the kind of lineouts where the maul becomes a real weapon. That’s easier said than done but the Scots need to be incredibly disciplined and resist giving away soft penalties. The kicking game from Finn Russell and Blair Kinghorn needs to be on point to play as much of the game as possible away from the Scottish danger zone.

Stage 2 arrives when South Africa do enter the 22. Decisions have to be made about whether to prioritise stealing ball or keeping everyone on the ground to try and stop the maul in its tracks. Given that both Springbok hookers were underthrowing the ball pretty regularly last time they played it might be worth Scotland being aggressive and getting Richie Gray up in front of their jumpers whenever possible. It’s definitely a risk but potentially less so than than taking on a monstrously physical South African pack in a pushing contest.

Do Or Do Not, There Is No Try

Quite simply, South African teams at World Cups do not concede many tries. Their runs to 3 titles and 2 other 3rd place finishes have been built on an almost fanatical defence. There is no lost cause they won’t chase down on the rare occasions their thin green line is punctured.

Number of matches in which South Africa have conceded:

  • 0 tries – 19
  • 1 try – 14
  • 2 tries – 7
  • 3 tries – 3

Other than Japan in that incredible pool fixture in 2015, only New Zealand (twice) have been able to put 3 tries on the Springboks at a World Cup.

Since that defeat to the Brave Blossoms, South Africa have only conceded 9 tries in their last 13 World Cup fixtures. Their only defeats in that spell were both to the All Blacks (including the side who went on to win the 2015 tournament) who scored 2 tries in each of their games v SA.

The Springboks’ recent form in this area has been similarly impressive. Again, only New Zealand – at home in the Rugby Championship – have been able to put 3 or more tries on South Africa in the last year. Argentina and Australia both scored 2nd tries with time expired and the result of the game already sealed. Opponents in their last 3 fixtures have each scored just a single try.

Three Is A Magic Number – Maybe?

Scotland have only once scored 3 tries against South Africa in 28 previous attempts. It is, however, something Gregor Townsend’s side have managed in 12 of their last 15 Test matches (only managing 2 in defeat to both Australia and New Zealand and a solitary try when they went down to Ireland in the Six Nations).

Keeping the South African juggernaut out for the full 80 feels like a bit of a forlorn hope. Adding to this the relative strengths of the Scottish game and the best chance of an upset is likely to come from the dark blues notching at least 3 tries. That probably requires risks to be taken and an acceptance that keeping the scoreboard ticking over with penalties is unlikely to be enough.

The key is creating opportunities to access the Springboks’ 22 and giving Finn Russell et al as many touches of the ball as possible. If Scotland’s current form can beat the historical odds and let them bag those 3 (or more) tries, then maybe there is a chance of one of their greatest ever victories.

Miscellany (looking for positives…)

  • South Africa conceded 16 turnovers in their most recent match against New Zealand – the same number of possessions lost as the All Blacks but at a much higher rate. SA coughed up the ball once for every 12 carries or passes compared once for every 18 carries or passes for NZ.
  • The Springboks’ turnover numbers were also pretty high in this season’s Rugby Championship matches – 20 v Argentina; 14 v New Zealand; and 21 v Australia.
  • The chance to target a disorganised South African defence means any turnovers will be gold for a Scottish backline replete with attacking talent. If the dark blues can force 15 to 20 changes of possession this way they should be able to translate a decent number of these into scoring opportunities.
  • Missed tackles were also an issue in those TRC fixtures – 25 v Argentina; 30 v New Zealand; and 21 v Australia (where South Africa’s tackle completion was a lowly 70%).
  • Despite winning the match at a canter, the Springboks missed 39 tackles against the All Blacks at Twickenham, dragging their tackle success down to 80%.
  • Ferocious South African cover defence (added to New Zealand’s own inaccuracies) meant that the All Blacks failed to take advantage of beating first up defenders on a regular basis. Scotland need to be much more ruthless any time the Springbok defence shows any hint of cracking.

Previous results

For their last 10 meetings, the Scotland v South Africa head to head looks like this from a Scottish perspective:


Most recent match, 13 November 2021 at Murrayfield:

Scotland 15 – 30 South Africa

Significant stat
233 – metres made with ball in hand by Scotland, the fewest for any home game in the Townsend era. The Springboks squeezed the life out of their hosts, particularly in the second 40 minutes after the Bomb Squad had joined the game immediately prior to the half-time interval. Finding ways to go round or over the South African defence on Sunday will be crucial. Taking them on through the middle too much is only likely to see ground lost and Malcolm Marx and co. swooping in for turnovers.

The Scottish Rugby Blog player ratings from that game are here.


Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referee 1: Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)
Assistant Referee 2: Jordan Way (Australia)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)

Mr Gardner was in charge of Scotland and South Africa’s most recent encounter in 2021. The penalty count from that game does not make for happy reading from a Scottish perspective! The fact that the Australian official also pinged them 15 times (this time in a win at least) against Italy earlier this year will also be a concern. If there are another 15 pens this time around there is almost no chance that the dark blues will come away with the win.

Scotland’s previous games with Mr Gardner in charge:

  • 2021 – lost to South Africa (H)
    Penalties: 24 (For 9 – 15 Against)
    Cards: none
  • 2023 – beat Italy (H)
    Penalties: 20 (For 10 – 15 Against)
    Cards: Italy 1 YC

Part II of the preview, including the head to heads, will follow later in the week after the team announcements.

16 Responses

  1. This Scotland team are capable of securing a win against any side regardless of their record against them.
    The glaring statistic however is the referee, if we got pinged to death previously with this guy Gardiner in the middle then I can’t see things changing. Any 50/50s at scrum or lineout time will go against us as these guys always give the nod to the perceived bigger / better team regardless of what they see happening in front of them.
    That and Ritchie always seems to rub referees up the wrong way.

  2. Nice one!….job done …deflated!

    Seriously though…its an 80 min match …its the World Cup! If we have 23 players who all show up …our tactics are right …and crucially our discipline both limits penalties and keeps 15 on the park we have a chance. Anything less than that, and at best, it’ll just have been a good workout for SA.

    Points gathered and conceded in this group will be crucial IF the top 3 take wins off each other. Russell will need to kick really well throughout.

    We’re up against it for sure…but then we’ve also had plenty time to work out our best effort.

  3. Scotland may well lose to South Africa but will beat Ireland an France. I’d say that would be a successful world cup.

  4. “Since that defeat to the Brave Blossoms, South Africa have only conceded 9 tries in their last 13 World Cup fixtures. Their only defeat in that spell was to the All Blacks’ side who went on to win the 2015 tournament (and who scored 2 tries v SA).” – didn’t they also lose to the All Blacks in their opening game in 2019?

    Great article. Gruesome though the content may be. 2 wins out of 19 against Tier 1 opposition! That is truly awful. Can anyone provide the list of losses?

    1. 2019 – Ireland, Japan
      2015 – South Africa, Australia (Grr)
      2011 – England, Argentina
      2007 – New Zealand, Argentina (beat Italy)
      2003 – France, Australia
      1999 – South Africa, New Zealand
      1995 – France, New Zealand
      1991 – England (beat Ireland)
      1987 – New Zealand (drew with France)

      Worth noting that based on pool or qualifying position we were probably only expected to win 2 of these (France ’95 and Japan ’19) but it’s still terrible.

  5. A 100% line out success rate and parity in the scrum are the 1st prerequisites.

    Getting Finn / Tuipulotu some front foot ball is another of the prerequisites.

    SA are pretty formidable up front but not supermen, achieve the prerequisites (above) be blessed with a wee bit luck and who knows

  6. This Scotland team have never played this South Africa team. This article is all about other Scotland teams.

    Keep the points ticking over. They might have the beef, but we have the backs and a top goal kicker.

  7. Difficult to work out the effect Russell has (or could)as a decoy…I’m sure some.We’re scoring closer in more than wide and it’s the 9 who is instigating that(or a momentary stand-in).one-out passes,off the foot..Points.And long may it continue.
    The poor starts I put down players looking after themselves with THE cup coming up….Or,they have to stop to check the instruction manual in there head’s..killing their natural instincts.
    Shite’s going to happen-it’s rugby.

  8. Always against Boks its the Ref. and how he sees things. That’s my main concern with Southern Hemisphere Ref. But an Aussie so might, just might, let the game flow?

    SA Will try to suffocate. But this Scotland team have legs. Defensively we will test them . But equally i worry about front row

    Lets give it our best shot. Cmon Scotland

  9. More concerned by the Ref ….than previous record v SA and team selection.

    Gardner gives penalties against us like Halloween Candy….and slows the game far too much.

    Keeping 15 on the park…and holding good discipline will be the key to challenging SA in this one imo.

  10. So disappointed by the emptiness of Argentina tonight. Third Lanark would’ve put up better opposition. But you’ve got to hand it to Borthwick’s drop goal tactics cupboard, bare as it was before.

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion