Dominance not enough for Scotland as South African defence holds firm

An injured Richie Gray leaves the field. Picture: Ian Rutherford
An injured Richie Gray leaves the field. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THERE were six minutes of the Test left to play and only seven Springbok forwards left to play them. Scotland had a scrum.

Had they stretched out their arms from the crouch position the Scottish pack could almost have touched the South African try-line, but what happened next was the game in microcosm. When David Denton, the home side’s most devastating ball-carrier, went roaring for glory he was hit by Springbok gold – and hit hard. He was held in the air and then propelled backwards. As an illustration of the defensive organisation and brute force of the visitors then this was as good an example as any. There were many others, though. You couldn’t count the number of moments when the Springboks showed what physical specimens they were, how other-worldly they were in the collisions that really mattered.

Scotland coach Andy Robinson. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Scotland coach Andy Robinson. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Scotland are now condemned to a horror group when countries are pulled out of hats next month at the draw for World Cup 2015. They will be seeded third, just as they were in New Zealand, a result of prolonged failure. Andy Robinson’s brain is addled enough in the here and now without giving too much thought to events so far down the road, but he knew the consequences of what happened. “It’s easy to do the sums,” he said. “It puts us in a very difficult position.”

This was Test match rugby played in a loop. Groundhog Day at Murrayfield, for the last half an hour at any rate, a passage of time when Scotland owned the ball, paid multiple visits to the Springbok line but couldn’t break the remarkable resistance of the visitors. These South Africans are no great shakes, but they are big and they are menacing and they are drilled to within an inch of their lives to protect their line as if their newborn child was sitting on it. Their gameplan is about power, power and more power. You’d find more subtlety in an angry buffalo cutting about a china shop, but power works. It certainly worked yesterday.

Scotland brought Murrayfield to its feet – and then its knees. Chances came and chances went and men grew old watching it all. It’s hard to recall a day when Scotland dominated one of the great rugby nations so completely, as they did in that last quarter. Dominated them, but didn’t break them.

You can look at the last 30 if you like, but that’s not what Robinson, right, was doing, and he was quite correct. “I’m pretty disappointed with what occurred,” he said. “The last 30 minutes were pleasing but the first 50 minutes were hugely frustrating. What we faced was different to last week. Last week we met speed, this week we met physicality. South Africa showed the gulf between us. They gave us a masterclass in how to take the sting out of a side and part of that was down to their accuracy and their control.”

You could say that Scotland’s decision-making was horrific when they were camped on the Springbok and the time came to pull the trigger – and it was. But it was that way for a reason. South Africa’s defence messed with Scottish heads. The more they ploughed into it the more the doubt washed over them that there was any way through in those closing minutes the more panicked they became. Greig Laidlaw kicked away possession and a chance went. Ross Ford threw crooked at a lineout and a chance went. Ruaridh Jackson kicked needlessly and another chance went.

They were playing a fruitless game of catch-up thanks to an opening 50 minutes when they were bossed by the Boks. It was just as well that Olympic heroine and army officer Heather Stanning was here to fire a cannon for Scotland in the preamble because it was the longest time before another shot was heard by the home side. The plot here was hardly revelatory. South Africa don’t really go in for clever lines of running and nifty offloads. They don’t kill you with pace and dexterity and lightness of touch in their backline. No, they take out a giant rock instead and hit you over the head with it repeatedly until you can take no more. That was the way of it in Dublin last weekend when Ireland eventually weakened in the face of a physical onslaught.

South Africa promised grunt and grunt they delivered, in attack and in defence. After four minutes we saw how things were going to be when Willem Alberts, the colossal blindside from Kwa-Zulu Natal, came barrelling up the middle and blasted the Scotland defensive line to smithereens. We saw lots of Alberts and plenty of his wrecking ball mates in the back-row, Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen. Louw was outrageously effective. Everything South Africa did in defence and attack had one, two or all three of these guys involved in it. They hit murderously hard, they spoiled consistently at the breakdown and they carried as if shot out of Stanning’s cannon.

Under pressure from these behemoths, Scotland lost their discipline. They coughed up penalties at an alarming rate. As dominant as they were in the last 30 minutes, the game was won in the first 50. The Boks led 21-3 at that point. Scotland were in need of a miracle.

“We can’t afford to give penalties away the way we did,” said Robinson. “We needed to be disciplined but we gave them the field position to build their lead. But we didn’t just give penalties away early on, we tackled high and we allowed them through to create momentum. In the second half we tackled low and we controlled territory. We were battering away on the South Africa line but the quality of their defence was excellent. It was a step-up from last week. The problem with our attack was that we were running in ones and we should have been running in twos and threes to make it harder for them.”

In the draw for the next World Cup, Scotland will be running not in threes but with the threes. Third seed status awaits a team now ranked tenth in the world. The cycle of failure continues.