THERE are few places in sport where a No.9 on the back of the shirt takes on more meaning than the great Tyneside footballing cathedral of St James’ Park.
From the great Scot of the inter-war years Hughie Gallacher to Jackie Milburn, whose name adorns the main stand, through to the likes of Malcolm “Super Mac” MacDonald, Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand and Alan Shearer, the Newcastle United No.9 shirt is less a piece of sportswear, more a liturgical vestment.
Yesterday it was scrum-halves rather than centre forwards who took centre stage after hundreds of Scotland and South African supporters had enjoyed a few pre-match beers in the Nine Bar behind the Gallowgate End Stand. Previously known as Shearer’s Bar, the former captain and record goalscorer’s name was removed after he criticised the club’s ownership regime a couple of years back.
Shearer might have enjoyed yesterday’s occasion at his old stomping ground as all the branding of Sports Direct, the company of United owner Mike Ashley, was covered up due to Rugby World Cup advertising regulations.
Both teams were captained by their No.9s yesterday, Greig Laidlaw leading out Scotland and Fourie du Preez marshalling the Springboks in this Pool B crunch.
Hopes that St James’ Park would be turned into Murrayfield-upon-Tyne were chastened in the hours leading up to the game when it became clear that a huge South African contingent was in town and it was those bedecked in green and gold who clearly edged the decibel battle during the anthems.
As well as wearing the dark blue to South Africa’s change of white, Scotland did have another ‘home team’ benefit when it would become clear that goalkicker Laidlaw would be shooting into the Gallowgate End come the second half, although that was unlikely to have meant as much to the Gloucester scrum-half as it would have to the likes of Shearer.
It was Du Preez who enjoyed the benefits of an advancing pack for most of the first half and his busy linking play and swift pop passes got his side up to the Scottish line before Schalk Burger drove over for the first try.
Half an hour had elapsed and Scotland were 13-0 down before Laidlaw got his first sighter at goal, making the penalty which was just at the edge of his range before falling short with a second from a similar distance.
Laidlaw has silenced many critics in the past few months but some still feel he doesn’t offer enough quick ball compared with his rivals for the No.9 jersey – Henry Pyrgos of Glasgow and Edinburgh’s Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. He had been putting decent pace on his passing when Scotland had their brief scraps of possession but he was caught hesitating and allowed the Boks to steal and spark the move which lead to JP Pietersen’s body blow try at the end of the half, Du Preez supplying the scoring pass.
Laidlaw and his team came out firing after the break and Laidlaw kicked a penalty then converted the try after some wing wizardry from Tim Visser and scorer Tommy Seymour that would have done Chris Waddle proud.
The rising Scottish tide was stemmed, however, by a Handre Pollard drop goal then a yellow card for the skipper’s blatant off-the-ball tackle on Bryan Habana.
Of course, in the oval ball game a yellow doesn’t just mean a jotting in the ref’s notebook but ten minutes in the sin bin and Duncan Weir had to fill the scrum-half void, with Stuart Hogg slotting into the stand-off berth.
In both rugby and association football the team that goes a man down can often be perversely galvanised and it was similar yesterday as the Scots responded well to the setback, Weir almost getting Visser in with a smart kick before converting a penalty to get within seven points at 23-16, but Pollard’s boot kept stretching it out of reach.
Laidlaw returned just as Hogg departed hurt and the skipper was back on the bench, replaced by bright young scrum-half prospect Hidalgo-Clyne, when Habana notched the clinching try which secured the 34-16 win for South Africa. It leaves Vern Cotter’s men needing to beat Samoa to achieve the goal of a quarter-final berth.
Scotland’s Pool B win column remains stuck on two. In six days’ time the No.9 will bring them back to St James’ Park in search of the hat-trick.