The Springboks may have won the match in Nelspruit, but they were humbled by a more determined and physical Scotland outfit, writes JON CARDINELLI in Pretoria.
It was fascinating to observe the two head coaches after Saturday's clash at the Mbombela Stadium. Heyneke Meyer appeared satisfied, while his opposite number, Scott Johnson, reacted as if the better team had lost.
While Meyer praised a relatively inexperienced Bok side for showing composure, Johnson pointed to Scotland's superiority in contact. The Scotland coach entertained the local press with his colourful description of the one particular refereeing decision, but what really stood out as significant was his subsequent insinuation that the Boks didn't pitch up physically.
From my viewpoint in the Mbombela Stadium press box, the Boks' performance in that first half was nothing to be proud of. In the build-up, the South Africans had spoken about sharpening their breakdown play, and had promised a more fluid showing in the backline. On game day, however, they neglected the most fundamental aspect of all: physicality in contact.
There was no urgency about that first-half display, no sign that the Boks intended to put in the hard yards against the Scots.
The body language was particularly bad in that first 40, with too many forwards walking rather than running from ruck to ruck. With regards to the lineout, there seemed to be some confusion between the decision-makers, as hooker Adriaan Strauss and No 5 Juandré Kruger were seen in deep discussion after a lineout feed failed to find its intended target.
To put it plainly, a plucky Scotland showed the Boks how it should be done.
They clattered into the collisions with the efficiency of a stronger and better prepared side. It didn't matter that they were missing several key forwards, it didn't matter that the senior players who featured (read Euan Murray and Johnnie Beattie) were carrying injuries. The Scotland players put their bodies on the line and more often than not, they were rewarded for their physical dominance.
What Scotland did last Saturday needs to be put in perspective. A weakened squad was selected to tour South Africa, and the team sustained three serious injuries in the first match against Samoa. Last Monday, there were so many other players carrying niggles that the management decided to cancel training. The team went on a game drive into the Kruger Park instead.
I agree with Johnson's statement that it was a fine Scotland performance against incredible odds. I also agree with the post-match comments of Meyer and captain Jean de Villiers regarding the Boks' composure, at least to a point.
Yes, the Boks were always favourites to win this fixture, even when they were 17-6 down. Yes, they didn't panic.
Yes, there is a lesson to be taken from this game, but have the Boks learned anything that they didn't know before? I don't think so.
If you don't make an impact at the collisions, you are going to struggle at the breakdown, and your backline is going to be on the back foot. And if you don't make the necessary impact at the defensive collisions, you are going to concede metres, and in some instances linebreaks.
Assistant coach Johann van Graan told this website last Thursday that gainline momentum was everything in the modern game. He suggested that South Africa had the ball-carriers on attack as well as the heavy hitters on defence to be a gainline success. Unfortunately, these words weren't put into practice against Scotland on Saturday.
South Africa's failure to pitch physically in that first half led to a gross under-performance at the breakdown. The pressure was then transferred to the backline who proceeded to make a series of errors.
Defensively, the Boks scrambled well. But the immense pressure applied by Scotland at the contact point resulted in the hosts backpedalling and slipping a number of tackles.
It was only when the Boks were 17-6 down that they were forced to play like we know they can. As De Villiers put it, the hosts made it harder for themselves to win the game.
When the Boks mucked in at ruck time, they prospered. When they ran at the gainline with all they had, they troubled the Scotland defence.
So in that respect, I agree with the Bok coach and captain when they say that it was a well-earned victory. My concern is why the Boks couldn't apply themselves for the full 80 minutes.
This is, of course, a criticism of a single performance. I don't believe that the failings in Nelspurit portend another disappointing Rugby Championship campaign.
Last week's performance was a case of the Boks not paying the depleted Scots the necessary respect at the gainline. They would never make that mistake against Australia, New Zealand, or even Argentina after last year's shock draw in Mendoza.
The Boks will face Samoa in this weekend's series 'decider' at Loftus Versfeld, and it goes without saying that they will have to meet the physical challenge of the islanders head on.
They may have lost flanker Arno Botha for the rest of the season, and may have to wait a while longer before Duane Vermeulen returns to the fray. The good news is that Francois Louw will be available for the clash against Samoa, and that a powerful gainline weapon in Willem Alberts could also return from injury.
The inclusion of these individuals will add some impetus to the Boks' gainline performance, and I'm sure that the other forwards will be keen to prove a point after last week's limp showing in Nelspurit.
Photo: Barry Aldworth/BackpagePix
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JON CARDINELLI on an unflinching tighthead, revitalised veterans, and Graeme Pollock playing in a curtain raiser to a Springbok Test back in 1955.
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