SOUTH Africa coach Heyneke Meyer insists he is fed up to the back teeth of hearing opponents talk about how predictable his side are but, after watching his side pull Scotland into a turgid battle, there was a distinct feeling that it is all part of his masterplan.
Meyer has a surfeit of talented players at his disposal but the former Blue Bulls chief seems to lack the desire to use them in an expansive, flowing game.
It might seem incongruous to begin a match report by analysing the failings of the victors but that is the best way to appreciate where Scotland let themselves down on Saturday and so failed to secure a historic second-successive victory against South Africa.
Such a victory was within reach and, just as against the All Blacks the weekend before, skipper Kelly Brown’s side produced the workrate, courage and determination that he and supporters demand of the national team. They were sufficiently competitive to push open the door to victory after an especially dull first 50 minutes, although that was helped by a Springboks side whose loss of almost a full side of players to injury or unavailability due to overseas contracts was evident in their failure to find any real rhythm.
But there was a great contest in the scrum with tighthead Euan Murray and, latterly, Geoff Cross standing up well to Gurthro Steenkamp. Hooker Ross Ford provided the power which keeps him in the side despite his lineout throwing and running threat being inconsistent and loosehead prop Ryan Grant put in an aggressive and productive shift in the tight and loose, defence and attack which made him a man of the match contender.
Al Kellock and Jim Hamilton worked well in the lineout after Richie Gray was forced off with a head knock after just 22 minutes and despite being out-performed for large spells in the first half by a strong Springbok trio, the Scots back row of Brown, John Barclay and David Denton worked hard at the breakdown and kept Bok playmaker Ruan Pienaar quiet.
Possession was evenly shared in the first-half but, while it took several Scots to stop the likes of Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Eben Etzebeth and Adrian Strauss, the less athletic Scottish ball-carriers were driven back, often by just one defender. And where the extra inspiration was required, seizing the initiative to storm through the door, Scotland fell short in the face of pressure. Mistakes, penalties and inaccuracy at key moments were ruinous.
Stuart Hogg missed touch with an early penalty and, moments later, Patrick Lambie slotted South Africa’s first three points. Good scrums and clever halting of the Boks’ maul were early positives for Scotland but then stand-off Greig Laidlaw, battered all day by Bok runners, ran offside at a lineout. Presumably, he was trying to mitigate the danger after he was left by his back rows to stop the “Bone Collector” Alberts – goodness knows why. That handed Lambie three more easy points.
Gray, who’d already taken a head knock, was ajudged to have taken out fellow lock Etzebeth in the air at a lineout and, from the resultant penalty kick to touch, the Boks mauled cleverly and hooker Adrian Strauss dived over.
Laidlaw pulled a penalty across the face of the posts before referee George Clancy warned both teams for “too many penalties for everything”.
The warning went unheeded and, while Lambie turned another Scots penalty into a 14-3 lead, Scotland failed to take advantage of another Bok infringement and let a glorious opportunity as half-time neared slip away.
Ford found Hamilton at the front of the lineout after a booming touchfinder by Hogg, and the forwards rucked and rolled South Africa across their 22, forcing the Boks to make countless tackles. Kellock picked and went but he was on his own and, in the split-second it took his team-mates to join him, Francois Louw, the hugely impressive Boks’ openside, had his hands on the ball and a penalty ensued.
Scotland’s two most potent attackers, Tim Visser and the livewire Hogg, had been screaming for the ball to the left with Juan de Jongh, South Africa’s inexperienced centre, appealing frantically for help in defence yet no Scottish player around the ball saw the chance.
Scotland paid again for a basic error six minutes into the second half when scrum-half Mike Blair, who had struggled for quick ball all day, hesitated before sending a floaty pass into midfield, and Strauss was onto it. The ball bobbled around the burly hooker’s fingertips, Murrayfield seemed to hold its collective breath, and by the time it nestled in the paws of the big Free State Cheetah he was striding into the 22 with no-one able to stop him.
Scotland coach Andy Robinson immediately replaced Blair with Henry Pyrgos, the Glasgow scrum-half who made his Test debut off the bench last weekend – and Scotland came alive. Whether it was Pyrgos or the jolt of the game being pulled from them as Lambie’s conversion put the Boks into a 21-3 lead, who knows? But, from the next scrum and break by Pyrgos, with his first act, seven minutes into the second half Scotland lifted the tempo of the game.
The Boks were penalised again for not rolling away at a ruck and Ford threw to the back of the lineout just inside the 22. Brown rose majestically, caught and threw the ball back into a space that appeared between the front “pod” of Scottish players and the back. Into the gap raced Pyrgos, collecting the ball and sprinting through a stunned South African defence and behind the posts. Laidlaw converted and, at 21-10, the contest was back on.
If the battle of brawn had darkened the Murrayfield soul, that bright flash of intelligent rugby brought enlightenment. It was a brave call for Brown to make with a new scrum-half but the training ground move, a particular favourite of former Scotland forwards coach George Graham, is a thing of beauty when executed so well.
There were 30 minutes left, and Scotland dominated them. But, despite crashing into the wall of green jerseys with Sean Lamont the pick of Scottish backs and Kellock providing a strong lead, they could not break through.
Penalties were awarded but skill and decision-making with pressure on and nerves jangling were lacking.
A Ford lineout throw was squint and chips over the defence by Laidlaw and Ruaridh Jackson were at the wrong place and times.
And so the story went. Ford watched Denton drive into contact but, by the time the hooker put his considerable weight behind his No 8, the Boks had got in between them and won a penalty.
The Scottish pack revelled in the scrummage battle, winning free-kicks and penalties as Boks went to ground.
Murray was replaced on 68 minutes by Geoff Cross, stopping before leaving the pitch to exhort his team-mates to believe. But the clock kept ticking and the Boks’ world-class, brutal defence kept battering determined Scottish runners into green cul-de-sacs. Clancy’s repeated warnings to South Africans for slowing ball in rucks were wearing thin – the Irish whistler and his assistants also missed a dose of Bok blocking – and there was a resigned sigh around the ground when he eventually showed a yellow card to replacement lock Flip van der Merwe. With three minutes left it was too little, too late to have meaning.
Scotland tried to take advantage with a scrum penalty, the impressive Denton broke and was held a metre out. Then a passing move ended with Visser, almost unseen until then, knocking on a pass to his neck.
The last act of the game summed up the excruciating futility blanketing Murrayfield as another penalty won by the Scottish pack at a Bok scrum in their 22, somehow led to a penalty award in the Scottish 22.
And South Africa knew what a let-off they had experienced as Morne Steyn swiftly kicked the ball to touch to end the match.
Boring and predictable South Africa may have been but they head to London with two wins out of two on their tour and leave Scotland again ruing poor skill and decision-making in a defeat to a southern hemisphere side.
Scorers: Scotland: Try: Pyrgos; Pen: Laidlaw; Con: Laidlaw. South Africa: Tries: Strauss 2; Pens: Lambie 3; Con: Lambie.
Scotland: S Hogg; S Lamont, N De Luca, M Scott, T Visser; G Laidlaw, M Blair; R Grant, R Ford, E Murray, R Gray, J Hamilton, K Brown (capt), J Barclay, D Denton. Replacements: A Kellock for Gray 22mins, H Pyrgos for Blair 47, G Cross for Murray, D Hall for Ford, R Jackson for Laidlaw, all 68.
South Africa: Z Kirchner; JP Pietersen, J de Jongh, J de Villiers (capt), F Hougaard; P Lambie, R Pienaar; G Steenkamp, A Strauss, J du Plessis, E Etzebeth, J Kruger, F Louw, W Alberts, D Vermeulen. Replacements: CJ van der Linde for Du Plessis, M Coetzee for Alberts, both 52mins, H van derMerwe for Steenkamp 62, F van der Merwe for Kruger 68, M Steyn for Lambie 74, S Brits for Strauss 76.