ONLY France of the northern hemisphere countries can have taken much satisfaction from the first round of the November internationals.
Things may be different this week-end. It would be surprising if they weren’t. The only really consistent international side is New Zealand. The form of all the others is up and down. It will be no surprise if England beat Australia handsomely; on the other hand, no one would be amazed if the Wallabies come out on top. There’s a good deal of optimism about Stuart Lancaster’s England, but even English journalists and commentators are not yet convinced by the team.
South Africa are not as good as New Zealand, which gives us one reason to hope that we can win this afternoon. Moreover, while the Springboks demand and receive respect, they don’t overawe the Scotland team as I think the All Blacks do. Doubtless the players would deny that they feel a bit inferior when they line up against New Zealand and, indeed, there were no signs of an inferiority complex in those periods of the match when we took the game to them. Nevertheless, it would be surprising if, deep down, the players really believed they would win on Sunday. Their mental attitude when faced with the Springboks will surely be different. One just hopes that last week’s very demanding match hasn’t taken too much out of them.
One hopes too that there will be fewer missed tackles. Some of last week’s failure to make the essential first-time tackles was due to the brilliance and ball skills of the opposition, some perhaps to the fact that this was the first game since Matt Taylor became defence coach and the players may not yet be fully comfortable with his system. Nevertheless, missing first-up tackles against a hard-running side like the Springboks will be fatal. I hope the Scottish players have looked at a recording of the game in Cardiff, and remarked how the Argentinians snuffed out the threat offered by the big powerful Welsh wings, George North and Alex Cuthbert, by adhering to the old-fashioned principle: tackle hard and low.
The Springboks have always loved the set scrum, but Scotland’s should be strengthened by the return of Euan Murray. Like many, I have mixed feelings about Murray’s principled refusal to play on Sundays. His commitment to his religious faith is admirable. Nevertheless, if he wasn’t a rugby player but, as a qualified vet, worked for a rural practice, I wonder if his partners would be happy to excuse him Sunday duty. He should be thankful that Andy Robinson has been so understanding. If he was a professional footballer, he would be lucky to find so indulgent a manager,
Scotland mauled pretty well against New Zealand, but this is one area of the game where they may find the Springboks a tougher proposition. The mauls early in the second half in Dublin which led to Jamie Heaslip being sin-binned and then to Ruan Pienaar’s winning try were formidable. Any time South Africa get a penalty and put the ball into touch ten yards or so from the Scotland line, alarm signals will sound.
In such circumstances, the defending team has to decide whether to contest the line-out or prepare to withstand the maul. Opinions differ, but I think the former the better option. It gives you the chance of preventing the maul from getting under way. But it probably depends on how the line-out has been going. Our own line-out wasn’t as secure on Sunday as one would wish. So much will depend on whether Ross Ford throws in more accurately. Sometimes it is unwise to risk the long throw to the tail even when you are in a good attacking position; better perhaps to play safe, throw short to number two in the line-out and make sure of retaining possession.
Behind the scrum both Nick De Luca and Matt Scott have the ability to break the line. Whether they can then bring their wings into play or off-load to a supporting runner is another matter. Our best chances for the backs may come after someone like Richie Gray or David Denton has driven a few yards over the gainline and the ball has been recycled quickly. A big difference between the two teams on Sunday was the greater speed with which the All Blacks moved the ball away from the breakdown. Indeed, when they were in possession, “breakdown” was a misnomer.
South Africa usually kick a lot. So Stuart Hogg should have chances to run the ball back and sometimes – one trusts – choose to link up with Sean Lamont or Tim Visser rather than relying on the kick-and-chase.
In short, this is a match that Scotland can win, but only if they keep their heads and cut out silly mistakes.