IF SCOTLAND had been at full strength on Saturday, there would have been indignation rather than disappointment at seeing a 17-6 lead turn into a 17-30 defeat.
As it was, the response has been different, and quite right too. This was a Scotland XV cobbled together from a depleted squad.
On Saturday, I wrote that we would do well if we kept the margin of defeat below 20 points. I never thought that, a little more than halfway through the match, we would have a substantial lead. As it was, the final score probably flattered South Africa, their last-minute converted try being the sort of thing we often score at the end of a match, in our case to lend a spurious respectability to a defeat. On the balance of play, 23-17 would perhaps have been a fair result.
Much has been made of the unsatisfactory decision to yellow-card Jim Hamilton for the sort of offence that often, even usually, goes unpunished, being dealt with by a quiet word from the referee, but it has to be admitted that the game was already turning South Africa’s way. The succession of injuries suffered by the Scots probably had more effect on the match.
The South African commentators, more than a trifle one-eyed, made much of alleged misdemeanours by the Scots which were ignored by the referee. We certainly played on the margin of the laws but the truth is that every team pushes the laws to the limit and challenges the referee’s interpretation of them.
In this respect, South Africa themselves are no angels – and probably wouldn’t want to be seen as such.
Last week, I suggested that our performance against Samoa wasn’t, at least after the opening quarter of an hour, anything like as bad as many thought, my point being that Samoa are now a formidable team, at least when the wind is favourable. They demonstrated this again on Saturday by beating Italy more comprehensively than they beat us. This doesn’t mean that we should end the series with a victory over our familiar Italian rivals. Results rarely work out according to such a neat pattern.
Nevertheless, assuming that Scott Johnson can assemble a starting XV of more or less fit players, there is a good chance that we may end this short but demanding tour on a high note.
Whatever the outcome of that match, this has been a valuable tour. Some players, previously on the fringes, have shown that they are at home at this level, Peter Murchie, Alex Dunbar, Tim Swinson, Grant Gilchrist and Ryan Wilson being conspicuous examples. The centre partnership of Matt Scott and Dunbar looks very good. When did both Scottish centres last score in a match against top-rank opposition? As a pairing they are not yet the equal of John Leslie and Alan Tait, or Sean Lineen and Scott Hastings, but they at least look capable of giving any opposition something to think about. In the back row, Alasdair Strokosch has been tremendous, John Beattie very good and David Denton, coming on as a replacement, looked to be back at his formidable best.
We still haven’t solved our stand-off problem. Ruaraidh Jackson was playing well until his injury. He remains our most adventurous 10 and the best tackler in that position. One assumes that young Tom Heathcote will have recovered from his concussion and start against Italy, while, of course, Duncan Weir is recovering from injury at home. One of the three may establish himself in the autumn, and – for the time being anyway – enable us to keep Stuart Hogg at full-back. Anyone who doesn’t yet accept that, at the top level in the modern game, the man at 15 has more opportunities to break the defensive line and score tries than the man at 10 should take a look at a recording of the Lions match against the NSW Waratahs, and especially at Leigh Halfpenny’s second try.
We don’t want to be celebrating glorious defeat. Nevertheless, the Scottish performance against South Africa was worthy of the highest praise, not only because they gave the Springboks a nasty fright, but because they played with great conviction, invention and daring. It may serve to put their efforts in perspective if you consider this Scotland XV, all the members of which weren’t, for one reason or another, playing on Saturday: Stuart Hogg; Sean Maitland, Max Evans, Nick De Luca, Tim Visser; Duncan Weir, Chris Cusiter; Ryan Grant, Ross Ford, Geoff Cross, Richie Gray, Grant Gilchrist, John Barclay, Kelly Brown, Ross Rennie.