AB Zondagh thinks Scotland can ‘crack the Da Vinci code’ as new coach gives backing to Finn Russell

Scotland may have lost to the Springboks on Saturday but AB Zondagh believes Gregor Townsend’s team can turn things around before the nations next meet at the Rugby World Cup in France.

New assistant coach AB Zondagh has been impressed by the belief shown by the Scotland squad. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

Plotting the downfall of South Africa is akin to cracking the Da Vinci code, according to the new attack coach who has been impressed by the belief shown by the Scotland squad in his short time here.

Zondagh, who was born and raised in South Africa but worked most recently in France, joined up with Townsend in September and says his remit involves “upskilling players to reach their full potential” as they prepare for the 2023 tournament.

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As a consequence of being in the third pot of seeds when the World Cup draw was made, Scotland find themselves alongside two heavyweights in Pool B. The likelihood is they will have to defeat either South Africa or Ireland to reach the quarter-finals, something they failed to do at the 2019 tournament.

Pierre Schoeman practises his footballing skills during a Scotland training session at Oriam. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

Zondagh, who helped Toulouse win a Top 14 and European Champions Cup double before switching to Murrayfield, thinks it is within the capabilities of the current squad.

“I’m convinced we can beat one out of the two, in fact we can beat them both,” he said.

“We’ve still got time, and there has been big lessons learned from the weekend, but we can also take a lot of confidence out of the good things we’ve done.

“I don’t think South Africa are going to change the way they play, but us as a team will keep learning, keep evolving and keep getting better with each game we play.

Scotland face Japan on Saturday for the first time since the 2019 Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Gary Hutchison/ SNS Group)

“So, the ball is in our court and it is up to us to get ourselves ready for those matches.”

Saturday’s 30-15 loss to the Springboks brought to an end Scotland’s four-match winning run and they will endeavour to finish the Autumn Nations Series on a high when they host Japan on Saturday.

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Zondagh felt the world champions were good value for their win but believes there were enough positives in Scotland’s performance to give them the confidence to improve. The home side, who led 10-8 at half-time, scored two excellent tries through Stuart Hogg but found themselves overpowered in the second half by the Springboks’ dominance at the set-piece and breakdown.

Finn Russell misses a second half conversion attempt against South Africa. AB Zondagh has no concerns about his kicking abilities. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

“You have to give respect where respect is due,” said the coach. “South Africa is a very difficult team to play against and a difficult team to beat. They grind out their way of playing and impose that on you for 80 minutes non stop.

“We did some really good things and showed what is possible. But the key for us is to do that for 80 minutes and not have lapses of concentration. That’s probably what cost us in the end. You have to put everything together; your kicking game has to be correct, your pressure has to be good and your set-piece has to function. We did a lot of good things on the day but just not enough to beat them.”

So how do Scotland take that next step?

“It’s a difficult one,” acknowledged Zondagh. “I think it took world rugby two years to figure out how to beat South Africa, so it is a Da Vinci code which is slowly being cracked, but the Aussies showed that it is possible to beat them.

“Because they are so rigid they do have certain weaknesses, but there are also things that you can’t get away from. Set-piece and physicality are two things which will always be there, which will always have a massive impact on any match they are involved in, so those are the areas which any team who wants to compete has to at least match up.

“So, that’s the challenge which faces any team playing a team like South Africa.”

Scotland’s cause wasn’t helped on Saturday by three missed kicks at goal but Zondagh said he had no concerns over Finn Russell.

“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” he said. “Finn’s a really good goalkicker. Kickers miss kicks. He trains really hard, he puts his hours in so his percentages will be up there. He’s got sound technique, he strikes the ball really well.”

It’s a different challenge altogether this weekend with the visit of Japan, the first meeting of the sides since the Brave Blossoms eliminated Scotland from the 2019 World Cup.

Japan were excellent that day, playing with pace and verve in front of a passionate home crowd in Yokohama. They’ve had scant opportunities to build on that success, with Covid limiting their ability to travel to play other teams in 2020.

Jamie Joseph’s side gave the British and Irish Lions a decent game at Murrayfield in June but suffered a thrashing at the hands of Ireland in Dublin a fortnight ago before edging past the lowly rated Portugal 38-25 in Coimbra on Saturday.

“It’s going to be a different threat this weekend but it’s a threat nonetheless,” said Zondagh. “They have a very smart coaching team so we have to expect the unexpected against them. We definitely must not underestimate them as they’re a very strong side.

“They didn’t put out their full-strength side at the weekend so I wouldn’t read too much into that game. It’s going to be a real tough battle. We have to concentrate for 80 minutes if we want to win.”

Scotland don’t have any fresh injury worries going into the game. Hooker George Turner is available for selection again after the rib problem that forced him off in the early stages of the win over Australia and caused him to miss the South Africa defeat.

Scott Cummings, the Glasgow lock, also comes into the mix following his recovery from a hand injury.

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