AT THE end of last month Glasgow lost the RaboDirect Pro12 final to Leinster in Dublin. Today, ten Glasgow players plus Geoff Cross, who finished last season with Glasgow, and four others drafted in from Edinburgh and Biarritz take on the might of South Africa in Port Elizabeth
It is the last match of a Scotland tour on which players have spent so much time in airports and on planes that they must all be in need of a holiday at home.
At least there’s some continuity this week, Vern Cotter having retained most of the squad that came from behind to beat Argentina last week. The decision to keep Duncan Weir at stand-off means that Tom Heathcote must be the only one of the touring party not to get on the field.
In contrast Adam Ashe, who has just flown in from playing college rugby in New Zealand, becomes the eighth player to win a first cap on the tour. Mike Blair recently recalled that the former Scotland coach Frank Hadden reckoned that a player needed to play around 50 professional games before he was ready for international rugby. Well, young Ashe hasn’t even started one match for Glasgow. Talk about throwing an infant into the pool and telling him to start swimming – even though this is quite a substantial infant.
South Africa have an infant of their own at stand-off, Handre Pollard, fresh from playing in the final of the Junior Rugby World Cup. He was named Junior World Player of the Year and the Springbok coach Heneyke Meyer calls him “a special player with brilliant, brilliant, brilliant touches on the ball”, which suggests that he is quite useful, or a bit more than that. Nevertheless a full international is a step up from the Junior World Cup, and Scotland will surely look to give him an uneasy opening 20 minutes in an attempt to knock him off his game.
This is a mildly experimental South African side, given that there are five uncapped players in the 23-man squad, and it is missing established stars like Jean de Villiers, Morne Steyn, Bryan Habana and Francois Louw, but it is still a team packed with players who not only have the experience of winning big games but the expectation of doing so. They came very close to losing to Wales last week, and, while Scotland will surely have watched the video of that game closely, we don’t have runners like Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert who punched holes in the Springbok defence. So, if we are to pull off what would be a remarkable win, we will surely have to find some other means of doing so.
We certainly cannot afford to drop passes or lose the ball in contact as we did so often against Argentina. What’s more, our defensive alignment will have to be better than it was when we leaked two tries then, and we shall have to find some legal way to stop the Springboks’ rolling maul. Wales’s failure to do so cost them two yellow cards and a penalty try.
One thing we can learn from South Africa is not to panic if you fall behind. Wales led for 78 minutes of the match last week, being 17-0 up within the first half-hour, but still lost. One thing we can – and should – learn from the Argentinian game is the importance of securing the restart after we have scored, and making sure that the next play is back at the halfway line. But failure to deal with restarts has been common with Scottish teams for too long.
It was a good win last week. If this was some way from being the strongest Argentinian side, they did nevertheless have home advantage, and in any case perhaps no more than three or four of the Scotland side would be in a first-choice, full-strength Scotland XV – not that any of us can now have a very clear idea what that might be. It is quite likely that Vern Cotter himself may not know that either.
Today’s match may clarify matters – or perhaps not. What is certain is that everyone today has a chance to show that he deserves to be in that first-choice XV. A good performance against South Africa will not be quickly forgotten.
So there are players today like the young captain Grant Gilchrist, Henry Pyrgos, Rob Harley and Chris Fusaro who have the opportunity to leapfrog over their rivals.
On another note, the announcement that Dan Parks is retiring deserves notice. A more popular player with Glasgow supporters than with the Murrayfield crowd, he frequently came in for harsh criticism in the Press – from me among others, I must somewhat shamefully admit.
One sometimes thought the criticism would have been more tempered if he had been home-bred rather than Australian, and, given that he had many more good games than bad ones, much of it may have been unjust.
He kicked 17 drop goals for Scotland – a remarkable tally – and none of those who have worn our number 10 jersey since he retired from the international game has shown the same ability to kick for position and ensure that we play the game deep in the opposition half. His forwards usually had reason to thank him, which is partly why he was the players’ choice as Scotland’s Man of the 2007 World Cup in France.