AFTER their ultimately anti-climactic encounter with the Springboks, coach Andy Robinson and skipper Kelly Brown stressed the physicality of the South Africans.
While they certainly had a point, Scotland’s inability to drag themselves back into the game when they were on top in the second half wasn’t primarily due to heavy-hitting defence but to Scotland’s inability to find a way around the Boks, rather than through them. Despite a few pyrotechnical moments, the result was a depressingly routine win for the Springboks and a lingering sense of what could have been for Scotland.
“The first half was really disappointing,” said Scotland inside centre Matt Scott. “The things we talked about – like keeping the penalty count low, and chopping their big runners low – we didn’t do, and they fed off it, kicking to the corner, getting their maul going, getting some penalties and building up a lead. We played better and smarter in the second half, making ourselves more dominant at the tackle area, but it was too late.”
Yet there were some bright spots on the horizon, and none more so than the performance of Scott. It says much about the youngster that he has slotted into the troublesome inside centre position with so little fuss. Scotland’s quest for a replacement for Graeme Morrison has been tinged with desperation under Robinson, with a huge cast of players being tried and discarded.
The list of players tried in the centres is huge: Max Evans, Ben Cairns, Alex Groves and Joe Ansbro have all been tried and discarded. Even Sean Lamont, a hard-running wing with what could politely be called limited distributive skills was given an extended run (and did surprisingly well without ever suggesting he was the answer to this thorny question).
Yesterday, though, faced with Springbok stand-off Patrick Lambie and the vastly experienced Jean De Villiers – a player “I grew up watching and dreaming that I’d one day be able to play against” – Scott’s defence was sufficiently watertight that neither South African got any change with ball in hand. Although he plays down his work in attack, he nevertheless did enough to keep the Boks’ midfield interested.
It appears that Scotland may finally have found the man to take them forward. Scott, who graduated in law this summer, has only just turned 22, so the chances are that he is only going to get better. He also plays week-in week-out alongside Greig Laidlaw and Nick De Luca for Edinburgh and seems to have the happy knack of creating space and time for De Luca, who has become increasingly consistent while playing alongside Scott.
Scott’s ability to bring the best out of those around him may stem from the fact that he played as a stand-off from his early years in Currie’s youth section, all the way up to senior rugby. That fact shines through in the way he approaches the inside centre role for Edinburgh, where he is a creative influence in the classic Kiwi second five-eighths fashion. With his unobtrusively tidy play and inventive distribution, Scott resembles a young Mike Catt or Conrad Smith, an unflashy influence who knits together the midfield.
“I feel I can offer the creativity of a playmaker at inside centre but at the moment the Scotland coaches feel I’m a powerful runner so they want to use that to take the ball up,” he says. “But I do feel that I can offer that good distribution and a kicking option. But we’re not playing expansive rugby just now, but I like to get the ball in my hands and allow players to play off me.”
When with the Ospreys and Wales, new backs coach Scott Johnson worked with big centres like Jamie Roberts who take the ball up hard, but playing with the inside centre as a creative pivot is very much the Australian way. Johnson and Robinson will undoubtedly ponder that fact after Laidlaw came under ceaseless pressure from the South African back row yesterday and became progressively more ragged. An outlet like Scott would be invaluable, although Scott believes he should share the blame for Laidlaw’s below-par showing.
“I didn’t help Greig as much as I should today,” he said. “Playing ten is tough against a side that is up so quickly, which is why we looked at those little dinks over the top. On another day, they could have worked.”
For now, though, Scott’s preoccupation is getting his own game up to scratch. “I feel as if this game passed me by a little bit; it was as if the clock was on fast-forward,” he said. “I didn’t feel I did enough: I had a few carries but it felt as if I was running into a brick wall.
“Now I need to step up and take a bit more responsibility on my shoulders. I believe in my ability, which is maybe something I’ve lacked in the past – I’m a modest guy and it’s always been an alien concept to put my shoulders back and hold my head up. I’m just trying to do the basics well and establish myself.”
This game has, however, provided plenty of motivation for next week’s meeting with Tonga. “The overriding feeling is one of disappointment,” he says. “I didn’t feel they were any better than us, they just played more cleverly. We need to start being more clever.”
That’s a sentiment with which few would argue. Next week would be a good time to start.