To beat one of the Southern Hemisphere giants is always a big achievement, particularly when you consider the form Australia have been in over the last few months, twice beating world champions South Africa.
The really pleasing thing was how Scotland managed those last 10-12 minutes. When the game’s in the balance like it was at the weekend, the fear of making mistakes can sometimes be stifling but I thought the decision making around where and when to play was excellent.
Of course, part of that decision making process becomes easier when you know you have a solid foundation up front and Scotland’s set piece, like it has been consistently in the last few years, was rock solid. In particular the scrum stood up well against the challenge of a vastly improved Wallabies scrum, and although there will be improvements needed for this weekend, it was a source of dominance as the game neared its conclusion, helping Scotland win vital penalties and territory.
South Africa on Saturday is a different beast altogether. There are very few secrets to how South Africa will play; a very aggressive and physical defence, an attack looking to be direct with powerful ball carries and a set piece whose sole purpose is to generate penalties and field position. Scotland must be confrontational, disciplined and technically excellent to nullify South Africa’s threats.
Their concentration needs to last for the entire 80 minutes as well. In the last ten minutes of their win over Wales you saw the impact South Africa were able to make with the players they brought off the bench. The quality and power at their disposal mean that you cannot afford a momentary lapse in concentration. With 11 minutes to go against Wales, South Africa had a scrum just outside their own 22. One mistake at the scrum from the Welsh led to a penalty, then to a lineout drive and a penalty and then to another and a South African try. On such small margins is Test rugby decided.
Discipline is also crucial in nullifying the South African game plan and starving them of set piece. Against Australia, Scotland’s discipline improved; against South Africa it needs to be exemplary.
All teams at Test level are confrontational. The physicality is a huge step up from the week in, week out level of club rugby. The difference with South Africa is the relentless nature of their physicality. There are no easy collisions. No phases of play where you can afford to be anything other than fully committed and brutal. Every collision is about winning the gain line and creating momentum, exhausting the defensive line into mistakes.
Where South Africa have been excellent over the last few years is consistently winning gain line for three or four phases in a row. When they do this defences concede penalties allowing South Africa to go back to what they love, their set piece power game.
John Dalziel, the Scotland forwards coach, hinted this week at a couple of changes in the team, understandable with a six-day turnaround between Tests.
One position they may have to change is hooker and it will depend on whether George Turner has managed to recover from the rib injury which forced him off against Australia after 11 minutes. Rib injuries can be unbelievably painful, trust me, and there is only so much determination and bloody-mindedness that will get you through, especially in such a physical game as this.
Ewan Ashman showed he is more than capable at Test level and Stuart McInally should have fully recovered after illness, so Scotland have quality options if George is unable to play.
I’ve been in camp and worked with Ewan a few times over the last year or so and I watched him play for Scotland in the Under-20 Six Nations.
I thought he was brilliant against Australia. It’s not easy coming on 11 minutes into a game when you’ve had 50 caps, never mind when it’s your first.
His set-piece was good. He has always been a very good thrower and he threw very well at the weekend as well as being part of a dominant scrum.
His work in the loose is excellent as well. He’s quick, has good footwork and is strong and a powerful ball carrier.
The surprise is that he’s not played that much. He’s only played about 15-20 games of pro rugby and hasn’t had a great amount of minutes this season for Sale for whatever reason but he’s certainly more than capable and he showed that at the weekend.
It’s been said a thousand times already, but any winger would have been delighted to finish a try like the one he got against Australia. He did brilliantly well, and he epitomises the Scotland set-up at the moment. When someone goes off in the first few minutes, someone comes in and fills the place and the level of the team doesn’t drop.
Whichever pathway they’ve come through, the quality of player now at Scotland’s disposal is better than at any time I can remember in the professional era. As well as this, I also think the quality of coaching in the current set up is exceptional. Whenever you come into the squad the standards are set. You know exactly what is expected of you. The coaching is top class. It’s a true high performance environment and it’s no surprise that performances have followed.