WE FEARED that the story around this game come today might be more about the Richie Gray in the South Africa camp than the one playing for Scotland, and so it proved as even the Scottish players bemoaned their failure to deal with the Springboks’ improved work at the breakdown.
Rugby now revolves around that “breakdown”, the point where tackles are made and teams seek to regain possession with brain and brawn. South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer signed up Borderer Gray in the summer as a consultant to improve his players’ technical ability in this area, not least because of the way Scotland had outsmarted them there in Nelspruit in June, and David Denton felt afterwards that it was the difference between the teams at Murrayfield yesterday.
“The disappointing thing from our point of view is that it changes from game to game,” said the No 8. “What you’re looking for is a consistency at the breakdown, and there’s no question that this is a Springbok team that is very good and showed in the Rugby Championship that they are one team that can really compete with New Zealand in that area.
“After the try we conceded in the second half, our defence looked back to its structure, which made the interceptions so frustrating because our defence had held out very well. But what it came down to was that the ball we were getting was very slow and for us carriers coming round the corner we’re standing there waiting and then when we do get the ball you have 320kgs of guys waiting for you, whereas when we have quick ball we can get the team on the front foot and that’s when the backs can go and score their tries.
“It’s a simple solution – we fix our breakdown. When we played them in South Africa our breakdown was about one-and-a-half seconds quicker than their’s, which is a lot, and that’s essentially how you win rugby games these days because it’s the only way you can get on the front foot.
“So this week the breakdown is going to be a massive focus. If we want to play a good game against Australia and get tries, we need to sort this breakdown out. Guys like Michael Hooper have been playing incredibly well so we will need to nullify him and get over the ball as quick as we can.
“We have shown that we can do better than that. The forward pack wasn’t hugely different to the one that played them in South Africa and our breakdown was outstanding there, so we have the capability to do it.”
Gray, unfortunately, travels with South Africa to France, along with the rucking machines, the “Collision Kings” that he invented. So the responsibility lies largely with Scotland’s Welsh forwards coach, Jonathan Humphreys, and the players, to prove that they can pick it up again quickly. But that is not their only area of concern. The lineout faltered, and while that may be because Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray had only just come back together, having last paired up in the RBS Six Nations in March, they need to find a quick fix to end the year in better heart, and with a better than zero scoreline.
“The lineout did let us down early on, but Jim is a great lineout caller and he will fix it for next week,” insisted Denton. “If we’re going to win Test matches your set-piece has to be solid and your breakdown ball has to be quick.
“That’s why this is tough. Everybody knew coming into this game that it was going to be a physical battle and I think they just used their bulk to get in front of us. They played well around the rules, slowing the ball just long enough when they strictly are not allowed to, but that’s rugby.
“I wouldn’t say it was embarrassing [not to score a point], but we’re a better team than that. Because we were 21 points down early on we didn’t take any kicks at goal that we would have, but not scoring tries is frustrating. There’s no excuses.
“We are missing a few of our attacking threats [Tim Visser, Stuart Hogg and Matt Scott are all injured], but guys have come in and done well – Tommy [Seymour] scored two tries last week. So we need to get our wingers back on the ball scoring tries against Australia.”
He added: “They scored four tries in the end but there was a possibility that the floodgates could have opened, and I think the team showed a lot of character in the second half. We held them back for a long time so there are small positives that we can take from the game, but it’s not good enough.
“It is just hugely disappointing obviously because we never really got ourselves in the game but to be completely honest I’m not worried about this team. It’s really disappointing for our fans for us to lose in that manner but all credit to them. Everyone stayed right to the end and that’s what I love about playing at Murrayfield. The fans were great today and we now have a week to sort it out for us and them.”
The question now will be which of the back row survives for Saturday’s final Test match of the year against Australia. Skipper Kelly Brown was unusually rested from this one, but will return to face the Wallabies.
It is anticipated that Alasdair Strokosch, having started the first two games, may make way for Brown’s return, while Denton is likely to be given the opportunity to continue his education.
The Edinburgh back-rower has been linked with a move to Leicester and the Aviva Premiership next summer and is eager to provide a far slicker flow of ball to the Scottish attack. This was as hard and clear a lesson as the team could receive from a side now leading the way in breakdown work, ironically, in part thanks to Scottish innovation.