SCOTLAND will face a more dangerous South Africa team at Murrayfield on Sunday than the one they lost to in the summer; one that no longer tries only to suffocate the hosts with physicality.
That is the view of Scotland’s defence coach, Matt Taylor, who has studied the evolution of the South African game over the past decade in his coaching roles with Australian teams and, in the last 16 months, with Scotland. He agreed with the suggestion that the Boks had opened up their approach over the past year under head coach Heyneke Meyer, with Scot Richie Gray alongside, more fully utilising their strengths across the pitch.
That is bad news for Scotland and for any other side bidding to stand in the way of South Africa’s campaign to return to the top of the world rankings and regain the World Cup in 2015. At the risk of being a bit simplistic, there is little doubt that one of the reasons why Scotland have beaten the Springboks five times in 22 meetings, and not beaten the All Blacks, lies in the mentality and slight arrogance of past Bok teams who have believed that their way will always be too much for the ‘plucky Scots’ and so there is no need to deviate.
New Zealand, as Wayne Smith intelligently outlined in these columns last year, rarely have such preconceptions, but use the passion and pressure that fuels the game in their country to seek out different ways to overcome an opponent. South Africa have stuck often to a direct, forward-centred approach so that even when the ball is not driven down the field by the pack or kicked to the heavens and corners by the stand-off, backs are asked to run straight and preferably over their opposite numbers.
Meyer was criticised in his homeland for seeming to stick with a ten-man approach by relying on his Bulls stalwart Morne Steyn, a renowned kicking fly-half, but Meyer has added layers to his game this year and we witnessed a more varied attack in the Rugby Championship that brought the Boks closer to the world No 1 All Blacks.
Saturday’s win over Wales had more of the traditional kicking game, but with Patrick Lambie, the relative of former Scotland captain Peter Brown, shifting from full-back to replace an injured Steyn at stand-off, there came a more fluid approach. Steyn was forced off early in Cardiff due to back spasms and, while recovering well according to South Africa doctor Craig Roberts yesterday, with France the final tour opposition he may not be risked, handing Lambie the No 10 jersey and the chance to attack Murrayfield’s expanse with ball in hand.
“From what I’ve seen in the Championship they can play two different styles of game,” said Taylor. “They can certainly play an attacking style keeping the ball in hand, but they can also stick it up the jumper, and drive it and kick it as well, so I think they have a Plan A and Plan B depending on how they want to play it.
“I think they have improved overall as a team in attack and defence from when we played them; they’re using the ball more and better than they have in the past.
“But, still,” he said, smiling, “when I look at South Africa you tend to know what’s coming. All teams will have little surprises, but for me it’s still about matching their physicality because they are a massive rugby nation in terms of how they play the game, and the style that their players know well.
“You look at both games [with New Zealand] in the Championship and there wasn’t much in them really. New Zealand might be ranked one but I don’t think South Africa are far off them. They can play a more attacking game than they maybe have in the past and whether they do that this weekend or not may be dependent on the weather, but some of their attacking in the Championship was brilliant.
“Some of our attack shape was quite good against Japan and some of the effort in defence was good. Obviously, we conceded two tries which wasn’t great, but we are reasonably positive. Looking ahead to South Africa we know that we have to up the bar in terms of our intensity and getting our structures right.”
What provides some optimism for Scottish supporters is the fact that in the summer, when Scotland had the Boks in real trouble in Nelspruit, leading 17-6 before losing a penalty try and Jim Hamilton to the sin-bin midway through the second half, it was less because of an arrogant approach by the hosts and more down to Scotland’s ability to nullify their threats and create danger of their own, despite missing four British and Irish Lions, and others such as Ross Ford, John Barclay and Nick de Luca to injury or rest.
The Scots should be stronger at this point in the season, and though far from error-free against Japan they now have a Test under the belt. The Boks are also closer to full strength than on recent tours and Meyer’s team is different, on the field and off it, so have more of an interest in, if not fear of Scotland’s ability to repeat that first 50 minutes’ display in Nelspruit and be carried through the final half-hour by a 60,000 Murrayfield crowd.
Taylor added: “We performed well in that game but didn’t get the desired result, and so losing the Test we weren’t happy with.
“What we did well in that game was get our line-speed in defence up, get two men in the tackle and in attack tended to get good, quick speed of ball. But in saying that we still conceded three tries. We have conceded two driven lineout tries in our last two games, one here and then one in Nelspruit, and they scored another good one at the weekend [against Wales] and they’re renowned for it, so we’ll need to get our drive defence good.
“But in any Test match if you prepare well you’ll go into a game confident and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
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