AT THEIR team hotel on the Royal Mile on Thursday, Flip Van der Merwe, the Springbok lock forward, sat in a corner of a room and spoke of his respect for the Scottish team, particularly their pack and especially their lineout and their breakdown. Van Der Merwe is South Africa’s lineout specialist, their organiser and technical schemer.
He calls the shots. Decides which call to use where and when and how. He pores over the opposition lineout on DVD and spots where it is weak. At 28, Van der Merwe is not the future of the South African second-row, but he is a significant and largely unsung force in this formidable side.
Van der Merwe analyses lineouts from breakfast, lunch and dinner. At one point on Thursday he was asked what he thought of the Scottish lineout and he trotted out some praise before pausing and smiling and saying he had a plan. “You’ll see on Sunday,” he remarked. Well, we saw, right enough. We saw too much. South Africa scored two tries off driven lineouts and though Van der Merve didn’t receive the ball from Adriaan Strauss, the thrower, or touch it down for the score on either occasion, the Blue Bull’s fingerprints were all over those scores.
What this Springbok pack did with their attacking lineout was masterful. What they did to dismantle Scotland’s lineout in the opening quarter was jaw-dropping. Five times in the opening 20 minutes, Scotland coughed up ball out of touch. A crooked throw, an overthrow, a stolen ball. All under pressure, all done with Ross Ford’s brain turning to jelly as he stood there and wondered how the hell he was ever going to find one of his own men ever again.
After one quarter of this Test, the home team was a wreck, hanging on to a seven-point deficit like a man clinging to a cliff edge, all of Murrayfield raising its voice only to acclaim a Scottish turnover on their own line that meant the siege could be lifted, if only for a little while. When all the home fans have to cheer is some work on the floor and the avoidance of the concession of another Springbok try then you get an idea of what happened here. This wasn’t so much a Test as an exhibition, a forensic deconstruction of Scotland’s game by the most improved side in the world over the last 12 months.
Scotland were beaten – and beaten up. At the breakdown, South Africa routed their opposite numbers, as you feared they would. This was no surprise but there is a galling aspect to it all the same in that one of the Springbok coaches who has done such stellar work with them in the collision areas was not from Johannesburg or Pretoria or Cape Town, but Galashiels. This was quite a day for Richie Gray, the Springboks’ breakdown consultant. Bitter-sweet with the emphasis on the sweet, you’d have to say.
As a contest, it lasted as long as the national anthems and not much longer. Scott Johnson would have had a check-list as long as the Murrayfield pitch, a series of must-dos if Scotland were to present any sort of gallop. Scrums, lineouts, breakdown. Accuracy in the kicking game. Organisation in defence. Attrition in the tackle. A killer edge when chances presented themselves. All of these boxes ticked and Scotland might have been competitive. Might.
They ticked none of them. The first time Scotland got the ball, from the kick-off, Ruaridh Jackson kicked long and missed his touch. The first kick. The first fundamental error and, soon enough, the first try. It took five minutes of South African pressure, five minutes when their clearing out of rucks was textbook, five minutes when their accuracy going through multiple phases was flawless, five minutes that led to a lineout and such clever movement from the Springbok pack and a maul that could not be stopped.
Willem Alberts got the try, but then Willem Alberts got whatever he liked yesterday during his 40 minutes on the field. Heyneke Meyer took him off at half-time with one eye on next Saturday’s Test against France. That was a small mercy for the Scots. As a pack, South Africa were so on top of things that you had to cast the mind back to when a Scottish unit had been so utterly dominated as they were here for the first 50 minutes.
The early try had a devastating psychological impact. Directly after, the Scottish lineout collapsed. They lost one of their own throws in the 7th minute, another in the 9th minute and yet another in the 12th minute. Then they were penalised at the first scrum. Then lost two more lineouts.
In their wildest dreams, South Africa could not have hoped for such weakness. In their worst nightmares, Scotland could not have imagined it this way. You can make errors and survive against the Japans of this world, as Johnson’s team did last weekend. Against South Africa, you are asking for humiliation.
Blunder upon blunder. There are two battles in a rugby match of this nature; the physical and the mental and South Africa lorded it in both areas, another psychological bonanza coming with the arrival of the second try – a gift from Jackson. In trying to ship his pass on to Sean Maitland, the fly-half undercooked it. Maybe he undercooked it because he was distracted by the imminent howitzer he was going to be hit with by the South African defender, but he threw it short and it was intercepted by Willie Le Roux and that was the end of that.
Two minutes later, South Africa scored again. What happened to the Scotland restart? What happened to the Scotland chase? What happened to Scotland’s awareness of impending danger? This dreadful slackness was taken advantage of by Le Roux with a break through midfield and gorgeous vision to kick to JP Pietersen running free outside him.
Last year, Scotland survived in the Test until just after the break. Yesterday, they were gone long before then, their pain only added to with that second rolling lineout maul that saw Coenie Oosthuizen crashing over the fourth try. Later, Johnson tried to talk up Scotland’s performance thereafter. He did it with all the gusto of a man chewing on rubber while claiming it was steak.
The Springboks, through their captain Jean de Villiers, were critical of the way they played in the remaining period, their inability to add their points mountain in the half hour after their fourth score and the way in which they allowed Scotland some ball that they steadfastly denied them earlier on. They ceded possession and territory, almost conceded a try or two, but didn’t. Not a try or even a point, despite being down to 14 for the last ten minutes.
When Pietersen darted across field to nail David Denton as the No 8 headed for the line the reaction from the Springboks was instructive. Pietersen’s defence was greeted like a try by his team-mates. In that moment, you could see the soul of this Springbok side, their pride in keeping Scotland scoreless as obvious as their joy in crossing the try-line.
Later, De Villiers said they were annoyed that they didn’t score more than 28 points, but every rugby nation has their cross to bear in life, some burdens being a whole lot lighter than others. Scotland’s load must have felt like a dead weight by comparison.