Allan Massie: Irony of Gala man and slow-ball curse

David Denton, one of the few Scotland heroes against the Springboks as he tackled 'like a man possessed', tries to elude the clutches of JP Pietersen. Picture: Ian Rutherford
David Denton, one of the few Scotland heroes against the Springboks as he tackled 'like a man possessed', tries to elude the clutches of JP Pietersen. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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LET us start on an ironical note. While the SRU has been scouring the world in search of coaches, there was a man in Galashiels who had been thinking deeply about that key area of the game, the breakdown or tackle point, and had invented a machine designed to improve players’ body positions so that they can provide clean quick ball for their scrum-half and slow up the opposition’s ball.

Given that slow ball has been the curse of our game for years, as I’m sure Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter, Rory Lawson and Greig Laidlaw could testify, all having suffered from it, you might think the SRU would have leapt to co-opt this other Richie Gray, the man from Gala. Not a bit of it. South Africa moved more quickly, hired Mr Gray – and we saw the results on Sunday. The Springbok forwards delivered the sort of ball that is a scrum-half’s dream and challenged so fiercely when Scotland took the ball into the tackle that the ball Laidlaw received, or had to dig out, was a scrum-half’s nightmare. The grass can be greener on your own side of the fence, if you have eyes to see it. Here endeth the first lesson.

There were others, of course. For most of the first half we were, despite much brave and resolute tackling, just about as bad as could be, making a succession of the sort of elementary mistakes that leave the spectator wondering whether to weep or laugh. However, it says much for the character of this team that things didn’t get worse. There have been Scotland teams, several back in the Nineties, which would have folded completely, conceding 50 or 60 points. That we lost the second-half only 7-0 was a minor triumph, given the potentially demoralising first half-hour. It was Willie de Roux’s interception try and his break to set up JP Pietersen’s, within the space of three minutes, that killed the game as a contest.

The final score has had some repeating that old line – we were lucky to get nothing. Actually this wasn’t true. Down so heavily, we chose to ignore several opportunities to kick penalties, instead kicking for touch at the corner in an attempt to score a try. When Wales lost to South Africa, and Ireland to Australia, the final score looked a bit more respectable because they kicked penalty goals – even though, like Scotland on Sunday, they failed to score a try.

There were so many mistakes, some coming because we lacked patience, and attempted to force the game. This tends to happen when you have been starved of good ball early on and feel the pressure to make something of such ball as you get. Given that the South African backs defended very narrowly it made sense to try – even to risk – floating a long loop pass beyond them. Unfortunately, the ploy didn’t come off, and it’s the sort of thing that looks terrible when it fails.

There was, as there usually is, an element of luck in the interception try, Ruaridh Jackson’s pass bouncing into Le Roux’s hands off Sean Maitland’s shoulder as the full-back 
came up very fast, getting marginally ahead of the flip pass. Both Jackson and his replacement Duncan Weir did some good things and several bad ones. If Jackson made more mistakes than Weir, this was perhaps only because he was 
on the field almost twice as long.

Weir himself was unlucky that his deft kick to the corner just failed to produce a try for Max Evans. Not that it would have mattered, except to make the final score look marginally more respectable. It would be no surprise if the fly-half roles were reversed this weekend, with Weir starting, perhaps in partnership with Chris Cusiter who looked sharp on his brief but very welcome return to the international field.

Even in a heavy defeat there are always a few heroes. One certainly was David Denton, who tackled like a man possessed and always made ground with ball in hand. It took a tremendous tackle by Pietersen to deny him a try. Afterwards one wondered if he shouldn’t have tried to come off his left foot and cut inside, but it is reasonable for a No 8 on the charge to back himself to hand-off a winger.

Yet even Denton made one mistake which more or less summed up Scotland’s dismal day, when he tried a clever flick from the base of a retreating scrum five metres from the Springbok line immediately before half-time, only to float the ball into touch.

I don’t suppose the nature of this defeat will have much influence on Scott Johnson’s selection for the Australia match. He has already made it clear that Kelly Brown will be back as captain, and Euan Murray will presumably return, too, even though Moray Low did pretty well at tight-head. Tim Swinson will probably come in at lock. Duncan Taylor did nothing to suggest that he will challenge Matt Scott for the No 12 jersey when Scott is fit, but it would scarcely be fair to discard him on the strength of one indifferent performance.

No doubt the medics will have a say. A six-day turn-round usually means that a couple of players don’t have time to shake off the effects of what was a hard Test match.