RUGBY internationals are well-termed as ‘Test’ matches and Scotland’s ability to move from the unique All Blacks test to a very different, but no less potent one, from South Africans will provide a key indicator this afternoon of what progress the side is making under Andy Robinson.
Scotland are undoubtedly underdogs in this second EMC Autumn Test match. They are ranked ninth in the world while the Springboks are second, even if there appears still a world of difference between the leaders and runners-up.
Yet, it would not come as a great surprise were Scotland to triumph and create another wonderful memory for the Davids against rugby’s Goliaths. Why? Because of two things: the fact that Scotland have achieved it before, beating the Boks five times in 21 meetings over the past 106 years, and so players believe, whereas they have yet to uncover that first victory against the All Blacks and so don’t; and two, more simply, because they have the ability to play a smarter game than South Africa.
The test that consumes all minds ahead of a Springbok game is the physical one. They breed them big in South Africa, the blend of Huguenots and Afrikaaners creating a gene pool large in stature and a mentality that places strength above many other traits. Still, the professional era in rugby and sports science has allowed many nations, including Scotland, to catch up, at least to the extent of 15 sportsmen, so the test now is more than that.
The Scottish team do not stand a chance today if they cannot first meet that physical confrontation, in mind and spirit, but then it is about employing the brain. What have these players learned from last week? One, that to stand off an opponent operating at this intensity and with the skills of Dan Carter and, this week, Ruan Pienaar and Patrick Lambie, is the equivalent of sporting suicide; two, to lack the confidence and conviction in every phase of play, through each facet of the game, for the full 80 minutes is to tie one’s arm behind the back; and three, that when in possession Scotland have the skills to be dangerous and score tries.
Robinson has tried various methods to uncover that holy grail of Scottish sport, consistency, and now for assistance has called on Australians in the shape of Scott Johnson and Matt Taylor. Taylor is trying to bring key traits of a defensive plan that made Queensland Reds the best team in the Southern Hemisphere, and Johnson … well, Johnson is just Johnson.
What he brings to it few really know. He was not about to suggest what he adds yesterday, insisting it was for others to judge. He is termed the “attack coach”, but stated that while defence seemed poor in conceding seven tries and attack good with three tries, it was wrong to separate elements of the team performance in defeat by the All Blacks.
“I said last week that the determining factor for me was always going to be the tackle area – for and against,” he said. “In the modern game, whether we like it or not, that largely determines results. We got beaten there last week and have to improve it there this week.
“I think we’re going in a reasonable direction [with attack], but you don’t divide the team by attack and defence. The reality is that we have to work well in all aspects of the game and there are areas we are happy with and areas we’re not happy with.
“We have to keep improving but can’t keep running along pretending that if you score three tries against the All Blacks that was good. We have to keep understanding that there were plenty of opportunities left on the park and for us to keep growing we need to do the things we need to do better.
“There has been a view that the attack was good, but this is an eclectic game we play, and there are aspects of our game we’re doing really, really well, but aspects that need to get better. We can’t just look and say there are three tries on the board so we did really well; there were ‘aspects’ we did well.”
He speaks some sense. Johnson has had a chequered past with some in the USA and Wales, where he held national coaching roles, critical of his “off-the-wall” style, suggesting he lacked substance, while leading players have told me he is a “fantastic innovator”. He seems popular within the Scotland camp and one imagines he is working attacking plans which have brought Wales and Australia success against top nations into these autumn Tests.
Blunt and to the point, Johnson laughed when asked if that was the case, and whether he agreed with Boks coach Heyneke Meyer’s assertion that the visitors to Murrayfield today boasted one of the world’s best defences.
“Do you really expect me to tell you how we’re going to take it up?” he said. “At the end of the day they’re pretty good and their coach is pretty right.”
He is intrigued by the selection of Juan de Jongh at outside centre, which goes against Meyer’s preference for powerful, strong-running threequarters, and may fear an attempt to mirror the success of quick-footed Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith in opening up Scotland’s defence last week. And he praised Pienaar as a key figure who brings “vibrance and maturity” to the team.
In assessing this Test match there are no prizes for guessing where the crucial battle lies, Johnson’s pinpointing of the “tackle” being it. The scrum and line-out are huge battlegrounds, but the breakdown is where attacks start and founder, the better teams those able to both disrupt opponents’ rhythm when they hit the ground and launch attacks of their own from those crunch moments when defences are askew.
With David Denton and John Barclay back after injuries ruled out Ross Rennie and Alasdair Strokosch, the Scottish back row has more experience and nous. Denton and Barclay have points to prove, which one expects to manifest itself in a raw hunger and eagerness to put Boks on their backs, and if Jim Hamilton improves his accuracy, Ross Ford sharpens his lineout throws and every player steps up to the plate more consistently in defence, Scotland will have the opportunity to impose their game on South Africa.
Then, we will discover if they have the mindset to do so. A key difference this week is that Scottish players know they can beat South Africa. It is impossible to tell how much the weight of history pulled them down against New Zealand, but it invariably does.
Johnson has a different mentality born of a different upbringing. Having famously derided New Zealand as “two poxy islands in the Pacific”, he has an Aussie brashness. Could it be a winning ingredient?
He points out that he is not playing, but he believes that Scotland can beat South Africa, and New Zealand, through playing them more often. This comes a year after his boss, Andy Robinson, declined the opportunity to step up to three-Test tours in the Southern Hemisphere, an invitation England, Wales, Ireland and France accepted, to instead drop to single “warm-up” Tests against the big three in June.
Robinson believes facing the top guns without key players at the end of a long season benefits no-one, but as he prepares for a first ’Bok test at Murrayfield Johnson thinks differently.
“We need to constantly play these big boys, home and away,” he said. “The more we do it, the more there’s an understanding and demystification of how good these people are.
“They are only human and if you play them constantly you start to realise that; while they are very good you’re not in awe. You’ve got to demystify big opponents and the only way you can do it is by playing them regularly, home and abroad, and that’s good for this team because the more we do it the better off we’ll be as a rugby nation.
“Yes, we might lose more than we win, to start with, but long-term success and understanding that you can beat them increases and in time results will come your way.”