AS THE hooter sounded for full-time on Saturday in Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld, a stadium that has witnessed great moments in rugby history, the reports that were being prepared were about a tour of three defeats for Scotland.
The debate was over just how much positivity could be drawn from the fact that a raft of newcomers had been exposed to Test rugby, players who may in future become Scotland stars and reflect on this as their launchpad.
But, a minute later, the resilience of this Scottish squad had shown itself one final time as Alasdair Strokosch conjured up a try and Greig Laidlaw added the conversion, just as he did in Samoa a year ago, to claim a last-gasp 30-29 victory over Italy.
What a difference a minute makes. Interim head coach Scott Johnson, though, was quick to state that it made little difference to him – the performance against Italy had still been below par and maintained the inconsistency of a good performance being followed by a poorer one. But skipper Greig Laidlaw made the point that, while all of that was true, he played the game to win, by any margin, and finishing the tour with a victory made the world of difference to the players.
The players know they underperformed against Samoa in the opening Test of the three-match tour and deservedly lost 27-17. But Samoa are widely under-rated. Scotland were lucky to win in Samoa last year and, since then, Paul Williams’ side have defeated Wales in Cardiff and nearly beat France in Paris, so are rightly ranked three places above Scotland in the world.
Scotland defied expectations when they led a near full-strength South Africa team 17-6 with just over half an hour remaining before a late try consigned them to a 30-17 defeat.
They were undoubtedly fortunate to escape with that narrow win in the final game, having failed to match the intensity and consistency shown against the Boks in Nelspruit.
But the tour has to be put in perspective. There were 17 players missing from the previous year’s tour squad – one which claimed victories over Australia, Fiji and Samoa – the most notable absentees being the Lions quartet of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Richie Gray and Ryan Grant. The likes of Nick de Luca and Max Evans were left at home, and the squad then lost six players to injury in the first two Tests. In all, there were nearly 30 recent internationalists unavailable for the final match.
The tour, therefore, became a trial of Scotland’s strength in depth, unprecedented in its scale, and resulting in ten new caps being handed out. Tim Swinson, Peter Murchie, Tommy Seymour and Alex Dunbar grasped the opportunity to prove they are real international prospects, while Greig Tonks, Pat MacArthur, Stevie Lawrie and Duncan Taylor all looked able but had too little time on the field to prove their Test credentials.
Hooker Fraser Brown enjoyed a Test appearance at the end that was scarcely believable a month ago.
MacArthur and Lawrie suffered injuries and the despair continued for the most unlucky man of 2013, Peter Horne. Having missed out on a Test debut in the Calcutta Cup due to a thumb fracture, the Glasgow centre came off the bench and struggled at stand-off against Samoa and then replaced Ruaridh Jackson against South Africa only to suffer a knee injury that will keep him out of rugby for virtually all of next season.
Tom Heathcote made his first start against Samoa and his second against Italy, and showed flashes but still has work to do to become a Test stand-off.
His inexperience, alongside that of others in the back division, was partly responsible for the inconsistency of performance, particularly in the defensive line.
Grant Gilchrist won only his second and third caps, and Ryan Wilson enjoyed his first Test start, and duly had the Boks to thank for a seriously injured shoulder, while skipper Greig Laidlaw, Henry Pyrgos, Jon Welsh, David Denton, Tim Visser and Matt Scott have only been playing international rugby for just over a year.
Scott Lawson has featured fleetingly in the past few years but proved that he deserves a fairer crack with a fine display against South Africa, while Alasdair Dickinson, who started all three Tests, stood up well despite not having played Test rugby for nearly two years.
Leaving de Luca and Evans at home, to allow a good look at Scott and Dunbar in the centre, was one of Johnson’s controversial pre-tour decisions. Omitting Rob Harley initially was the other – with the rest of the missing players out of the coach’s control. But Scott and Dunbar proved themselves genuine new choices in midfield.
All the players left Johannesburg yesterday, though, speaking of the sobering reminders delivered by Samoa, the Boks and Italy of how, to a man, the Scots need to improve their skills.
Given that realisation, and the understanding that at least 15 experienced players should come back into consideration for the autumn Test series, Johnson declared the tour a worthwhile exercise – while biting his lip over the drop-off in form against Italy.
“We talk about passion,” he said. “There are a lot of good things in Scotland, and every international team has its own amount of desire and passion. But we cannot just work on passion alone. We have to work on the rugby side as well.
“Some of the things you look at with people are the dynamics and what they’re prepared to do. Are they prepared to put themselves out to do it? There have been some positives in that regard. There are some good young kids who want to be the very best that they can, and I am all for that.
“You can see the competition within the group now. That is a positive. We want to get to the stage where you and I are arguing about who the best 30 are. Not just talking about one or two but having a genuine argument.
“We are not after one-hit wonders; we are looking for consistent performers. There have been questions asked and it doesn’t stop here. This is a journey these kids have got to be on. I was a bit nervous going in against South Africa and came out of that really, really proud of what they did.
“I want them to have to fight to get into the Scottish team and I think it is starting to turn. I think we have got a lot out of it and I think it was worth doing.”
Johnson will use the autumn Tests to continue exposing young talent, but it will be done with one or two newcomers pitched in among a team of experienced players, as opposed to a handful of experienced players surrounded by fresh-faced Test new boys.
This trip began with a sense of foreboding over whether it was right that a country with Scotland’s relative lack of depth should embark on a tour while missing so many of its internationalists. The fear was that the Scots were lambs to the slaughter and that feeling only intensified after the Samoa debacle. But, in a country with just two professional teams and fewer than 100 professional players to call on, and where opportunities for players to progress are severely limited, the tour ended with a sense that the emergence of players such as Swinson, Seymour, Murchie and Dunbar may be more important for the future of Scotland than it would be to most other nations.
In South Africa at a time when the nation fears the end for its greatest leader, Nelson Mandela, it seems appropriate to end with this quote from Swedish writer Henning Mankell: “There is no reality without struggle, no future without battles.”