Rugby World Cup: Scotland sing well and play bravely, Boks' unmacho shade of pistachio, but this is the champions in Group of Death

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of the Rugby World Cup Group of Death, I will fear no evil. Just the Bomb Squad. And, you know, Eben Eztebeth, tall as a rocket in the second row. And that little firecracker of a scrum-half Faf de Klerk (who rarely if ever faffs). Oh and Cheslin Kolbe, exploding all over his wing.

South Africa really are incendiary. The reigning champs. The tournament’s most successful side. Scotland, from my vantage point behind the sofa, seemed in serious danger of being blown up.

Which at least would be different from them blowing up, as happened in the opening game of the last World Cup. You might remember that four years ago the telly pundits took off their shoes out of respect for hosts Japan, just before Gregor Townsend’s men performed as if they’d forgotten their boots. This time the ITV panel stayed shod – no chunky white trainers, thankfully, the look Lawrence Dallaglio strove to rock the previous evening – and there was little risk in the predictions of anyone not keeping feet firmly on the ground.

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“You know what you’re going to get from South Africa,” admitted John Barclay. “They’re going to squeeze the life out of you.” Sir Ian McGeechan’s view that they’ve got even better since 2007 was echoed pitchside by Greig Laidlaw. “Brutal in the pack,” he confirmed, “with added sparkle in the backline.” But come on, we could be encouraged by the added sparkle of Greig’s jaikit, lovingly stitched from 100 tartan beermats. From the sweetie-wifie imploring of the STV continuity announcer (“The moment is here, support yer team!”). From the Finn Grin – Russell’s instinctive schoolboy snigger as he practiced his kicks. And from the Boks choosing to play in an unmacho shade of pistachio. So I began to edge out from behind the sofa …

Pass it! Darcy Graham is downed before he can set up Blair Kinghorn for a try in Scotland's best opportunity of the first half.Pass it! Darcy Graham is downed before he can set up Blair Kinghorn for a try in Scotland's best opportunity of the first half.
Pass it! Darcy Graham is downed before he can set up Blair Kinghorn for a try in Scotland's best opportunity of the first half.

The first challenge would be the anthem, something all teams are encountering. The pre-recorded singing by a mass choir of French children has been heavily panned, even likened in creepiness to something from a Stephen King horror flick, which moved commentator Nick Mullins to point out that the kids involved had had a rough start in life. Give them a break, basically. “Flower of Scotland” may not be loved all the way from Sumburgh to Stranraer but in the south of France it sounded just fine, Grant Gilchrist bellowing through tears while Darcy Graham chirruped with a chuckle, enhanced by his comedy moustache.

Within mere seconds, no one in dark blue was smiling, with a Blair Kinghorn knock-on from kick-off and Russell’s clearing punt charged down. The pressure from South Africa was ferocious. There was no time to move, think, maybe not even to breathe. Juddering collisions on the field were matched by the commentary team of Mullins, Scott Hastings and Jim Hamilton gabbing over each other.

Gaspingly, during a rare break in the chaos in the play, Mullins wanted to know what being bang in the middle of prime South African beef smelled like. “Horrible,” said Hamilton, before adding: “Nothing better.” But on the flanks, Duhan van der Merwe was barely getting a sniff of the horribleness, Graham even less.

No doubt about this, the Stade Velodrome is stupendous. Even when viewed from my living-room. Even, as happened the previous evening, when England don’t score any tries, never looking like they ever would, against woeful Argentina. If Scotland were to cross the whitewash we would be justified in asking for the five points to be doubled. If Scotland were to win we could try claiming the Webb Ellis Cup then and there.

Then: a glimmer of a chance. Graham had been frustrated by his lack of involvement, to the extent he’d challenged Kolbe to a square go. Maybe the rage hadn’t cleared and that’s why he didn’t pass. Your correspondent was standing on the back of the sofa at that moment but reluctantly had to climb back down.

Scotland, though, refused to buckle. They began to win penalties, which in the circumstances almost seemed like tries, and were cheered like scores on and off the pitch. Zander Fagerson, bloodied but unbowed, won another on half-time and Russell with a smooth boot was able to reduce the deficit to just three points. South Africa knew they were in a game, also that they’d survived a potential red card for Jesse Kriel.

But Hastings’ observation that Scotland had to accept they might not get many chances was rammed home immediately after the interval as the Springboks snaffled two quick tries with casual arrogance. There hasn’t been a match for some considerable time where so little had been seen of Scotland’s fast flair guys – Graham, Van der Merwe, Sione Tuipolotu and Huw Jones – but the champs’ behemoths were throttling time, space, possibility and the scenarios the Scots must have dared to dream about in their sleep. Then they made a bunch of changes, bringing on more behemoths.

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Scotland didn’t give up but it was telling that Russell’s shining moments were two terrific try-saving tackles. His box of tricks stayed mostly shut. Fun reduction officers they may be, but South Africa – unsentimental, uncompromising and so, so unforgiving – are intent on becoming the outright greatest in the business of winning World Cups. They have three titles, the same as New Zealand, but weren’t invited before claiming their first.

Scotland have a bit of time now to nurse bruises and pride and will need it. Our last captain in victory over the Boks is Rory Lawson. On the eve of this pulverising clash he told me that we could fashion four good performances in the Group of Death and yet fail to progress. Right now, his words seem sadly ominous.



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