This was because, unlike some victories against southern hemisphere opponents, it was no great surprise. This is a measure of how Gregor’s team is developing, and has indeed developed.
Last week something unusual happened. There were no surprises in the team announcement. Indeed I had for once scribbled the starting XV that was later announced. I can’t make the same boast this week, certainly hadn’t foreseen the selection of Rufus McLean, Matt Scott, and Nick Haining, with, as a consequence of the last, Hamish Watson confined to the bench for the first half at least. Gregor’s mind is rarely easy to read; yet all these selections make sense.
South Africa kick a lot, and McLean, with a fair amount of experience at full-back, may be more secure in the air than Darcy, rough though it is for the Hawick man to be omitted. In any case the prospect of seeing McLean tested at this level is exciting. My only reservation is that he looks a more natural left winger than a right one. Some players are, or have been, equally comfortable on either flank – Chris Paterson, for instance. But one would never, I guess, have thought of fielding Iwan Tukalo on the right or Tony Stanger on the left.
Sam Johnson had a good match on Sunday, but it is interesting to see Matt Scott back for what will be his 40th cap, but his first for several years. He has had bad luck with injuries and made little impression when he returned to Edinburgh in Richard Cockerill’s time. But he is playing very well now for a resurgent Leicester team. We have less cover at 12 than for other positions in the back division, at least till Cameron Redpath is fit and playing again.
The choice of Haining to start with Watson on the bench makes more sense the more you think about it. He had a very fine game against France in Paris in March, and he is taller and heavier than Watson. He gives another option at the tail of the line-out, and this matters against the Springboks.. Our number 8, Matt Fagerson, is a terrific player, but not the tallest, and of a line-out tail of Jamie Ritchie, Fagerson and Watson, only Ritchie is a jumper capable of competing in the top class. As it is, Watson will come on to create havoc when, one hopes, some of the mighty Springbok forwards are beginning to puff a bit. It’s pleasing to see Stuart McInally fit and selected again, though I think that it won’t be long before the first-choice Scotland hookers are George Turner and Ewan Ashman, even if it may be some time before we see the latter display the same remarkable gymnastic dexterity he showed in scoring his try against Australia. Perhaps of all the Scottish hookers I have watched only Colin Deans might have contrived a finish like Ashman’s.
South Africa are the World Cup holders and beat the Lions this summer. But they have lost twice to Australia in recent weeks which shows they aren’t unbeatable. One tends to forget that Wales ran them very close in the World Cup semi-final, and indeed came close again to beating them in Cardiff last Saturday. Moreover they will again be without the generalship of scrum-half Faf De Klerk, so influential in their World Cup triumph and against the Lions.
South Africa always command respect and sometimes awe. Still this Scotland team itself has earned respect. The forwards will be under pressure, as every pack is against the Springboks, but, if the defence holds good and Ali Price, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg can move the South Africans about the field and compel them to play a fast game, then to say it is even-odds on a Scotland win is not the sort of triumph of hope over reason that we have so often indulged in. Only a few years ago our friends in other countries looked on us with condescension and even pity. This is no longer the case.
For the first time in thirty years we have a Scotland team which we could judge to be capable of beating anyone even - at long last – the All Blacks. Of course we will still lose some matches. The Six Nations next Spring looks wide open with almost everybody capable of topping the table. Nevertheless it is at last a good time to be a Scottish rugby supporter.