SIZE matters in rugby and few sides demonstrate that better than South Africa, but Scotland will be led by the smallest player on the pitch tomorrow with a confidence that his charges have the strength, physically and mentally, to defeat them.
It is no surprise to see Greig Laidlaw in the No 9 jersey, and while head coach Scott Johnson did raise eyebrows when he dropped Kelly Brown and handed Laidlaw the captain’s role, the doughty Borderer has become such an astute leader in the Scottish game over the past two seasons that there is no feeling of the team losing anything as they face the Springboks for the 24th time in 107 years.
It is a history littered with great, contrasting matches, with a wide variety of stunningly talented rugby players on both sides, but the central challenge has rarely deviated from the course of a courageous ‘little un’ (Scotland) summoning all of its strength and wit to outshine a domineering ‘big un’ (you can guess).
Now, however, with Scottish rugby having come through 16 years of professionalism, there is not the same physical gap between the players. South Africa still produces far more huge specimens of human beings than Scotland, but they can only field 15 in a rugby match. Willem Alberts is not green in colour, but in every other way the big-hitting flanker regularly lives up to his ‘Hulk’ nickname, and Bakkies Botha is as big and strong a lock as any in world rugby.
But Scotland now have players who match up well. Richie Gray will stand a few inches taller than Botha at the front of the lineout tomorrow afternoon and Jim Hamilton has an inch or two on Flip van der Merwe.
In the front row, Alasdair Dickinson is two stones lighter than the Boks loosehead Gurthro Steenkamp, but Steenkamp will be facing Moray Low, who is the same size. Just like Ross Ford and Adriaan Strauss, Low and the visiting tighthead Frans Malherbe are 19-and-a-half-stone replicas of each other, at least in physical dimensions.
In the back row it is a similar story. Alasdair Strokosch gives nothing away physically to Francois Louw, David Denton and Duane Vermeulen are similar in size and weight and while Alberts is a couple of stones heavier than John Barclay, he is struggling with a shoulder injury so Siya Kolisi may start and the 22-year-old gives up height and weight to the Scot.
There are other differences, naturally, but physically Scotland are not at the disadvantage they once were so Test battles are now less about what we can see and more reliant on what we cannot. In other words, it’s in the head. When Scotland front up and play with great physicality these two teams are evenly matched, and that was as clear in 2010, when Scotland won at Murrayfield 21-17, as it was when they lost 14-10 in 2008 and in the recent two meetings, which resulted in 21-10 and 30-17 defeats that were closer than either scoreline suggests.
Laidlaw is an ideal leader because he typifies the mind-over-matter approach. The way he helped lead the team back on to the front foot against Japan last week and took his try was reminiscent of his uncle, Roy. The dummy and snipe over the line struck at the heart of both of them and their desire to find a way to win. Belief is key. He has it but, more importantly, the Scotland skipper this weekend senses that others in this squad under Johnson do, too, which is a step forward from last season’s autumn whitewash.
“There is a strong belief within the squad, and not just because we’re playing South Africa [and have run them close recently],” he said. “There’s a belief now that we’re very well coached.
“The coaching is really good and training is going well, and that on its own is giving the players a lot of confidence, and you probably saw that in the Japan game where it got tight but we stuck to our systems, did the small things well, and I always knew we would pull away. You’re probably right that that feeling wasn’t there against Tonga last year.”
What that says about Andy Robinson is for another day, but Johnson’s way is working so far. Many feared his callow side would be whacked by the Boks in the summer, but they stood up and so having bravely used the tour to expose young talents, Johnson has been rewarded with players now a step further on towards becoming Test quality.
They also now have three Lions back in Sean Maitland, Gray and Ryan Grant – the prop is part of a strong bench with newcomer Jonny Gray – plus the added expertise of a genuine openside in Barclay and a new centre in Duncan Taylor in fine form with Saracens.
South Africa are stronger too and remain firm favourites, having come through a good Rugby Championship to rubberstamp their status in the world order as second only to New Zealand. They will seek to dominate every collision in what will be a frenetic, action-packed Test match, in the bone-jarring fashion that will have ‘Bokke! Bokke!’ resounding around the Republic but also with new technique sharpened by no less than Scottish coach Richie Gray. With defences so organised and resolute now, the breakdown is the key part of the game for if a player can be stripped of the ball or forced to give it up, his team’s defence is not set and so vulnerable.
South Africa have long achieved that through brute force, but they have been unpicked by others – including Scotland – quicker and more astute in ground play, and are changing. We should be hoping that we are talking about our own Grays, Richie and Jonny, and not the South Africans’ namesake come tomorrow night.
The scrum and lineout are where Scotland need to earn their mental spurs, but win ball there and match the Boks at the breakdown and they will have the opportunity to attack a back line that has not worked together often. Scrum-half Fourie du Preez is world-class but he, Jaques Fourie and JP Pietersen – who will lead the team out on the occasion of his 50th cap – have been out of the picture topping up their pension in Japan of late, while young fly-half Patrick Lambie is still feeling his way in managing games.
There is no escaping the quality across the South Africa team, and watch out for the impact off the bench from both sides, but just as Scotland are now matching them in the physical stakes, so their defensive and attacking skills are improving. June proved that the Springboks can be outsmarted when Scotland keep 15 men on the field.
“This is a different game but I don’t think we should forget that one,” said the skipper, whose veins run with belief. “We’d be silly to do that because we did a lot of good things in that game and I think if we do a lot of the same things this weekend we’ll put ourselves in the best possible position to be in contention.”
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