FROM months out, this looked like a disaster in the making but nobody could have predicted just how awful it would be.
South Africa 55-6 Scotland
Eight tries to nil was the reflection of a gulf in class between the sides when it came to power, strength and clinical finishing, and the only solace Scotland could find was that they had managed to stem the flow for about half an hour in the middle of the game before a sin bin opened the floodgates again.
On a statistical level, it was about as bad as it gets. Only the 68-10 1997 defeat by South Africa at Murrayfield stands worse in the annals of Scottish rugby history and at least Scotland did manage one try that day, which they never looked like doing in Port Elizabeth. Slightly more worryingly, when you add in the 51-3 defeat by Wales in March and not only have Scotland conceded 50 points in two of their last five games but both of them stand in the top four of the all-time list of Test defeats.
Which is not to say that there is a great deal in common between the matches. While the Cardiff defeat was supposed to be the best team Scotland could muster at the time — selection aberrations excepted — this side was anything but.
They had been run ragged on a round-the-world trip, and then had a dozen experienced players removed by the decision to play the match outside the official Test window, leaving Vern Cotter, the head coach, with no option other than to throw a bunch of novices to the lions. The result was almost as gruesome as that metaphor makes it sound.
Look at the side, from four to 12 — Tim Swinson at lock, to Peter Horne at centre — you had nine players with a total of 63 caps between them before the match started, ranging from Duncan Weir, the most experienced with 14, to Adam Ashe with none.
It may have been an experimental South African side but when your newcomer trying to force his way into the team is Schalk Burger, the 70-cap veteran on the comeback from a serious illness, and the team also includes Victor Matfield on 112 caps and Fourie Du Preez on 69, it was not particularly adventurous nor short on experience.
Scotland started nervously and were 19 points down before they had really seen the ball apart from restarting after the tries. Having been penalised at the first ruck, that set the pattern for the opening quarter and they were always chasing the game from there.
“If we take away our mistakes and the things we offered them, some of the easy ball we gave them, then we can quickly cut down the difference. If we improve physically and technically then we cut down their dominance at the breakdown, there are a lot of things we can develop and work on,” said Cotter afterwards.
“We gave away too many penalties. We were penalised early in the game which gave them access to our end of the paddock and they scored from those opportunities. We came back and applied pressure on them in the latter part of the first half and their early penalty in the second half demonstrated that we had them thinking a bit more about the game and position, and the inroads they were making.
“Then a yellow card tipped it their way again. Once we got that it became difficult and then we ran out of steam. Physically they dominated the greater part of the contact zone, especially in the latter part of the game.”
He was right. Penalties gave South Africa an early line-out five yards out; an old-fashioned peel round the back and the big forwards were pounding the Scots line until Marcell Coetzee, the flanker, forced his way over with only a little more than three minutes on the clock.
The pressure continued with the Springbok physical dominance in the backs even more pronounced than it was in the forwards, leading to quick-fire tries by Willie Le Roux, the full back, after Jan Serfontein, the centre, had set up the position and for Lwazi Mvovo, the wing, who outpaced the defence onto a chip through from JP Pietersen, the other centre.
That was the point where Scotland had a choice…they could crumble or they could fight back. To their credit, they managed to make it the latter, though they were making too many mistakes to be able to maintain the pressure for long enough to turn it into serious scoring chances. The error rate has been an issue all tour, regardless of the experience of the side on display, and has to be one of Cotter’s main concerns.
Still, they did stop the flow of tries and their attacking build-up looked promising if only they could learn to get the key pressure passes to stick, and they made sure they would not be “nilled” with Duncan Weir getting two penalties, both from long range into such wind as there was.
By the second half, as Cotter pointed out, the Springboks were taking things a bit more seriously and even took a penalty shot at goal, landed by Handre Pollard, their debutant stand-off, who was to finish the game with five successful conversions as well as that kick for a personal contribution of 13 points.
If there was going to be a comeback, however, they had to keep 15 men on the pitch, so when Swinson was harshly sin binned for what was judged to be a no-arms tackle, it inevitably petered out. South Africa scored from the line-out that followed the penalty kick to touch — Coetzee again on the back of the rolling maul — and added another when Scotland’s short-handed defence was caught on the outside and Pietersen was judged by the TMO to have grounded the ball successfully.
By now they were trying too hard to try to claw their way back into the game, while exhaustion was also starting to take its toll as even more mistakes crept in. When Mvovo intercepted Henry Pyrgos’s pass to head for the try line, there was no way back and the Springboks added a late gloss to the scoreline when Lood De Jager, the huge lock making his first start, twice capitalised on Scotland blunders to force his way over for a couple of scores.
And so, not quite a record defeat, but humiliation nevertheless. The lesson is as much about officialdom as rugby, though. Scotland were never given a chance by the people who made sure that every possible barrier was put in their way from missing players to an idiotic tour schedule.
“It is obviously disappointing to lose, and by that amount, but there were some encouraging performances by several players,” said Cotter. “I still don’t like losing but I was encouraged by the spirit and determination of the players. We will go forward with a plan to improve physically, improve technically and to apply tactics that suit us and the profile of the team. I go away with plenty of things to think about, which is good.”
Scorers: South Africa: Tries: Coetzee 2, Le Roux, Mvovo 2, Pietersen, De Jager 2. Cons: Pollard 5. Pen: Pollard (43). Scotland: Pens: Weir 2.
South Africa: W le Roux; C Hendricks, J Pietersen, J Serfontein, L Mvovo; H Pollard, F du Preez; C Oosthuizen, B du Plessis, J du Plessis, L de Jager, V Matfield (c), M Coetzee, S Burger, D Vermeulen. Subs: Z Kirchner for Le Roud, 22-27 and 74. M Boshoff, for Pietersen 71. F Hougaard for Du Preez 29. T Nyakane for Oosthuizen 67. A Strauss for B du Plessis 61. M van der Merwe for J du Plessis 49. S Lewies for Matfield 71. T Mohoje for Coetzee 67
Scotland: S Hogg; S Maitland, N De Luca, P Horne, T Seymour; D Weir, H Pyrgos; A Dickinson, R Ford , G Cross, T Swinson, G Gilchrist, R Harley, C Fusaro, A Ashe. Subs: P Murchie for Hogg 66. D Fife for Maitland 53. G Hart for Pyrgos 75. M Low for Dickinson 78. K Bryce for Ford 60. E Murray for Cross 50. J Gray for Swinson 60. T Holmes for Fusaro 49.