IF YOU only looked at the territory and possession statistics from Saturday’s match, you’d find it hard to believe that Scotland lost. The home team dominated both aspects, gobbling up 63 per cent of possession and playing 67 per cent of the match inside the South Africa half.
There are, however, several reasons to explain Scotland’s loss – one of which is tackling. A good team will make something like 92-95 per cent of all the tackles that they attempt and, to prove the point, South Africa’s tackle completion rate was 95 per cent.
Scotland had been woeful against New Zealand in the previous Sunday’s 51-22 defeat, missing 21 tackles for a 77 per cent completion rate that is rock bottom when it comes to first-class Test matches. They were better against the Boks, but not by much. The Scots still managed to miss ten of the 74 tackles they were asked to make for a completion rate of 86 per cent, well below the 90 per cent mark which is pretty much a prerequisite for success.
Of course, the Boks and All Blacks are not the easiest players to tackle, which is one of the reasons those teams sit first and second in the IRB world rankings.
When you can field a nineteen-and-a-half-stone flanker in Willem Alberts, who has the feet of a prima ballerina, enabling him to dance past Stuart Hogg, you have a handy combination of power and finesse. Alberts is rumoured to run the 100 metres in 11 seconds dead. I don’t know if anyone has actually clocked him but, then again, I doubt anyone is going to argue the point too vociferously. His like are difficult animals to bring down.
Scotland coach Andy Robinson suggested his players had gone too high when trying to tackle in the first half and, perhaps, he had a point.
The other problem the Scots faced in both games was at the breakdown. Win the breakdown battle and you will go a long way towards winning the match, but Scotland were roasted in that area in both games.
It’s no good though pointing an accusatory finger at the breakaway forwards. The breakdown is everyone’s speciality these days – or at least it should be. In days gone, by the Scots were masters of bending the laws to breaking point but that accolade now goes to Ireland and, of course, New Zealand skipper Richie McCaw, who seems to have the use of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak when the boy wizard isn’t using it. The Irish throw bodies into the breakdown, hack the ball out of rucks and lift the ball carrier off the ground to win a turnover. In short, they will do just about anything other than give the opposition a clean, usable stream of possession. On the basis that prevention is better than cure, the Scots should have done exactly that against New Zealand and South Africa, flood the breakdown area to cut off possession at source. Not all the time, of course, but it’s difficult to remember a single counter ruck over 160 minutes of rugby.
The South Africans must have brains to go with their brawn because they slowed Scotland’s ball at the breakdown without incurring the wrath of the match officials. In the first half the Scottish first receiver could have had a manicure by the time scrum-half Mike Blair finally got the ball in his hands and then only after an excavation of Time Team proportions.
That meant that any time the Scots backs got the ball they also had a wall of green jerseys charging at them. Defence as a form of attack, with Nick De Luca just one victim as the centre was bundled backwards fifteen yards in one, two-man tackle. Even the big men such as Jim Hamilton and Euan Murray struggled to make much headway.
Admittedly, matters improved as the match wore on, and things might have been a whole lot better with a referee who was prepared to show an early card to open up the match rather than waiting until the 76th minute before losing his patience.
The crowd had lost their sense of humour long before that, but the team had to deal with the cards they were dealt, even if one of them was a joker in the form of Irishman George Clancy.
Slow ball is all but useless for an attacking back line, but it was the only type of possession that Scotland won for fifty-odd minutes on Saturday. After a few phases of going nowhere, the stand-off has little option but to kick the ball away and Greig Laidlaw fulfilled that task none too well.
He still looks like a scrum-half playing at No 10 and, for all of Henry Pyrgos’ heroics, Robinson must be contemplating starting Laidlaw at nine against Tonga with Ruaridh Jackson one place wider.