SCOTLAND have had so many heroic defeats that supporters have become sick of the term, but this was one of those memorable Test match performances where the final result was the only disappointing, even cruel aspect of am unexpectedly impressive Scottish display.
Scorers: South Africa: Tries: Penalty try, Engelbrecht, Serfontein. Cons: Steyn 2, Lambie. Pens: Steyn 2, Lambie. Scotland: Tries: Scott, Dunbar. Cons: Laidlaw 2. Pen: Laidlaw.
The final converted South Africa try, in the final minute of the game, put a flattering distance between the sides which was never there.
This was close to Scotland’s second-string team with more than 15 players ruled out of the tour by this point either through injury or involvement with the British and Irish Lions tour. Euan Murray and Johnnie Beattie played with injuries, and so there were widespread predictions in Nelspruit before kick-off of this burgeoning Boks side seeking to beat the 68-10 record defeat of the Scots recorded at Murrayfield in 1997.
But after Tommy Seymour had been surprised by the kick-off, which just avoided embarrassing him by bouncing into touch before Boks could claim the ball, he and fellow debutants Peter Murchie and Tim Swinson typified the spirit in this Scottish squad.
The pack took the game to the Springboks, the back row was phenomenal at the breakdown, Greig Laidlaw was at his tactical best, at scrum-half and later at stand-off when both Ruaridh Jackson and his replacement Peter Horne were forced off with very painful-looking injuries, and centres Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar responded to criticism of their play against Samoa last week with sterling performances full of conviction to outshine their illustrious opponents Jean de Villiers and JJ Engelbrecht.
Scotland led 10-6 at half-time and came out of the break in similarly determined fashion and were rewarded by a Dunbar try that took them into a stunning 17-6 lead, but the game turned on a string of controversial decisions by the match officials.
First, Welsh assistant referee Neil Hennessey drew the attention of French referee Roman Poite to a push by Dunbar on Bryan Habana off the ball, and the Boks grasped their chance to score their first try off a driven lineout – Poite awarding a penalty try when it was collapsed on the line. Then Scotland lock Jim Hamilton was shown a yellow card for shoving his opposite number Eben Etzebeth – the two locks having endured a running battle throughout the game – after play had stopped. It was needless and Hamilton will be cursing his action, but an open-handed shove that caused no injury was not worthy of a yellow. Bizarrely, Hennessey was two metres from it and watched it happen, but abdicated responsibility and Poite asked for advice on the incident from the television match official.
The South African TMO came back with the suggestion of a yellow card and Hamilton was off. The Mbombela crowd loved it and roared their approval, and South Africa duly exploited their man advantage by running through a series of phases over the next few minutes before full-back Willie le Roux came into the line to create the extra man and off-load to Engelbrecht for a run between two defenders.
That put the Boks 20-17 ahead and it proved decisive, taking some of the Scottish confidence and handing it to the Boks, and the home side moved into a more fluid rhythm for the final quarter, Patrick Lambie adding a penalty before the last-
second try by replacement centre Jan Serfontein. There had been a frenetic start to the game and it did not let up throughout the first half, which was Scotland’s plan of attack – take the game to the Springboks from the start, or, as one Scottish player put it beforehand, “we’re going to go at them balls out”.
South Africa stand-off Morne Steyn worried them from the start, however, sending the kick-off deep towards one of the Scotland’s three debutants, Tommy Seymour.
The winger almost fatally let it drop and was fortunate that the ball bounced into touch before two chasing Boks could collect just metres from the line.
But Scotland weathered the early storm and came back fighting. Laidlaw, captain for the first time, proved himself the astute tactician we know he is by varying running and kicking, asking questions of the South African defence and keeping them guessing over the point of Scottish attack.
Having been deeply disappointed by his missed tackles and dropped passes against Samoa last week, Matt Scott, the inside centre, was clearly in the mood to atone and he made several half-breaks which took the Scots deep into Springbok territory.
The celebrated Bok centre duo of De Villiers and Elngelbrecht were struggling to contain Scott. Fly-half Ruaridh Jackson tried to find Seymour with an ambitious high pass as Scotland sought a finishing touch, but it flew over the Glasgow winger’s head and into touch.
But with the forward pack driving Boks backwards and seizing on scraps of possession, Scotland were able to keep South Africa pinned in their half and after Scott came close with a break to the five-metre line, they were rewarded with a penalty in the eight minute, which Laidlaw converted from the left touchline to put Scotland 3-0 up. The Boks responded and only unstinting defence from across the Scottish team inside their own 22 kept the door closed, but Ryan Wilson was working overtime to slow ball and was twice penalised, Morne Steyn king advantage to put the Boks 6-3 up after 18 minutes.
However, that only sparked the Scottish determination further and back came Laidlaw’s troops with the game’s first try. It started with Peter Murchie, another impressive debutant, and Jackson running ball from deep inside their half, and continued with Seymour emerging from a group of Boks and then chipping the last man.
The South African defence then swarmed, but Scotland kept cool and retained ball, Hamilton going for the line, then Ryan Wilson, before the ball came back and Matt Scott saw his chance and ducked inside to go round behind the posts for a fine score. Laidlaw converted and Scotland continued to enjoy half-breaks, but players either slipped or well caught by the Bok swarm of defence at the second attempt.
Scotland suffered agony and ecstasy at the start of the second half, stand-off Peter Horne injuring his knee and then the team leaping in celebration when a sweeping attack, composure in the Bok 22, a good charging run by Swinson, and slick hands from Laidlaw, Dickinson, Murchie and Scott sent Dunbar into the left-hand corner, Laidlaw again adding the extras from the touchline.
But then came the drama of the penalty decisions, Hamilton’s yellow card, the penalty try and, despite terrific determination from the Scots right to the final whistle, the killer try from Englenbrecht.
South Africa: W le Roux; B Habana, JJ Engelbrecht, J de Villiers (capt), B Basson; M Steyn, R Pienaar; T Mtwarira, A Strauss, J du Plessis, E Etzebeth, J Kruger, A Botha, M Coetzee, P Spies. Subs: S Kolisi for Botha 4mins, C Oosthuizen for Mtawarira, F van der Merwe for Etzebeth, B du Plessis for Strauss, all 67, P lambie for Steyn, J Serfontein for Engelbrecht, both 70.
Scotland: P Murchie; T Seymour, A Dunbar, M Scott, S Lamont; R Jackson, G Laidlaw (capt); A Dickinson, S Lawson, E Murray, T Swinson, J Hamilton, A Strokosch, R Wilson, J Beattie. Subs: P Horne for Jackson 33mins, D Denton for Wilson 38, H Pyrgos for Horne 44, A Kellock for Hamilton 61, M Low for Dickinson 64, D taylor for Murchie 75.
Referee: R Poite (France). Attendance: 31,056.