QUITE often in the last ten or twelve years we might have responded to a 10-21 defeat at the hands of one of the Tri-Nations with some relief.
Not this time, which makes Saturday’s game and result all the more irritating. A week ago we were beaten by a team playing beautiful rugby; this time we lost to one playing precious little rugby at all. All four wings on the field were starved of the ball.
Throughout the first half Scotland played as if still recovering from their strenuous efforts against New Zealand. They were dreadfully slow and lacking in fire. Tackles were missed, and when we had the ball and took it into the breakdown, it was never recycled quickly. Time and again Mike Blair was having to dig it out. His occasional attempts to get referee George Clancy to take note of South African bodies on the wrong side of the ball were met with indifference.
We did do a couple of clever things, twice refusing to engage in the maul so that the Springboks were correctly penalised. On the second occasion this denied them a try. Unfortunately, when we attempted it a third time, Mr Clancy wasn’t interested. By the time the Scottish forwards realised that he wasn’t going to blow his whistle, it was too late to stem the South African surge. The line was crossed and the try awarded. As Jonathan Davies remarked at half-time, you do look for consistency from the referee.
Mike Blair has taken the blame for the second Springbok try, and certainly he might have been more alert, and checked his pass, but if the South African hooker came from an onside position to intercept it, he must be quicker off the starting blocks than Usain Bolt.
It used to be considered bad form to criticise the referee, but nowadays international referees are well-paid professionals, and no longer entitled to be immune from scrutiny. Mr Clancy has never seemed one of the better referees on the international panel. His performance on Saturday did nothing to cause one to revise that opinion. To wait until the 77th minute before giving a Springbok a yellow card for persistent infringement in their own 22 might be thought admirably tolerant if you were a South African. Chicken-hearted if you were a Scot. . .
Nevertheless, we had our chances to win after that well-executed training-ground move enabled Henry Pyrgos to score and bring us back into the game. We dominated the last half-hour, but were denied time and again, partly because we showed more determination than imagination, partly because little mistakes crept in.
Greig Laidlaw and Ruaridh Jackson have both been criticised for kicking away possession. What was wrong, in both cases, was not the idea, but its execution. Laidlaw’s kick wasn’t high enough to let the chasers compete for the ball, and Jackson’s chip was just too long. Even so, a more fortunate bounce might have resulted in the try being scored. Anything can happen when the ball lands in the in-goal area.
The first half was again, sadly, marked by missed first-up tackles. If Greig Laidlaw is going to be played at fly-half, he needs more protection than he got. A small lightweight ten will always be targeted by big back-row forwards. Ask Charlie Hodgson, the most talented English fly-half of recent years, who lost his place in the England XV when the All Blacks ran through him or over him.
There were successes in the Scotland team. Up front, Ryan Grant, David Denton and Ross Ford all made several storming runs into the heart of the Springbok defence, without, however, being able to off-load the ball to a supporting runner.
When they were brought to ground, the recycling, even in our best passages of play, was rarely quick enough. So the backs almost never got the ball on the front foot, and our most dangerous runners, Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg, were never brought into the game.
In the centre, Matt Scott and Nick De Luca had no option but to drive forward, because they were granted neither time nor space to do anything else. Still, we must surely try to have our back-three coming from deep on a different angle. The Tongan match next week will, one hopes, give them a chance to do so, but only if we secure quick and clean ball.
Looking on the brighter side, Scotland in these matches against the top two teams in the world have no more reason to be depressed by their November experience than England and Ireland, and less reason than Wales.
Unfortunately, the brighter side is still bleak. If you discount England’s canter against an under-strength and ill-prepared Fiji, the Lions countries’ record is played six, lost six. England played like bears of very little brain against Australia, refusing to kick at goal when only six points down. Being 11 points behind, Kelly Brown had more reason to go for a try rather than trying to kick any of the penalties awarded. Nevertheless, he may have been wrong. Chipping away at a lead puts pressure on your opponents.