Gregor Townsend’s side were left to rue a high penalty count which contributed to 18 of the visitors’ points as they struggled to cope with their power game.
It was a reality check for the Scots, a reminder of just how much further they have to go before they can truly be considered a world power. They scored two fine tries through Stuart Hogg, taking the captain to 24 for his country and drawing him level with Ian Smith and Tony Stanger on the all-time list for Scotland players.
South Africa scored two of their own, both from winger Makazole Mapimpi, in an engrossing encounter which ran away from the hosts in the final 20 minutes.
Scotland tried to attack but the world champions’ stout defence coupled with their set-piece excellence ensured they saw out the match in relative comfort.
Gregor Townsend had predicted lots of scrums and lots of lineouts and Scotland faced a South African barrage in the first 15 minutes. The visitors were relentless and the Scots were leaking penalties in a desperate attempt to keep them out.
They just about succeeded and turned defence into attack with a marvellous piece of improvisation on their own tryline. The ball popped out to Russell who executed a neat sidestep before passing to Duhan van der Merwe who scorched away and made it to halfway before being halted by a textbook tackle from Jesse Kriel.
But the Boks were penalised in the aftermath and then marched back 10 metres by referee Angus Gardner, putting the kick in Russell’s range. The stand-off duly delivered, giving Scotland a 3-0 lead which scarcely reflected the balance of play.
What it did do, though, was give the hosts encouragement and momentum and they won another penalty shortly afterwards after good work by Jamie Ritchie forced Kriel into conceding. This time Russell was off target.
Gardner felt it necessary to speak to Hogg about the number of penalties Scotland were conceding and the message was clear: any more and the yellow card would be coming out. For his part, Hogg felt Scotland were not getting a fair crack of the whip.
Elton Jantjies took advantage of the latest infraction to restore parity.
Things were starting to get a little scrappy but there was a heartening first sight of Rufus McLean with ball in hand, the Glasgow winger gathering Kwagga Smith’s fly-hack and then surging past him.
McLean could do nothing to stop Mapimpi scoring the first try of the game a couple of minutes later as the Boks winger got round him to finish off a fine move involving Willie le Roux, Damian de Allende and Siya Kolisi. Elton Jantjies was off target with the conversion attempt but South Africa had their noses in front.
The try seemed to have a galvanising effect on Scotland who finished the first half strongly, scoring a try of their own thanks to a piece of Finn Russell magic.
With space at a premium, the fly-half switched play with a superb cross-kick. Van der Merwe gathered on the left wing, passed inside to Hogg who in turned moved it on to Sam Skinner. The ball went back to van der Merwe and then Harris whose pass inside just eluded Boks scrum-half Herschel Jantjies. Hogg pounced on the bouncing ball and ran in under the posts. It was a great score by Scotland, lifting the crowd, and Russell’s conversion put them 10-8 ahead.
The home side should have finished the half further ahead but Russell was off target with a penalty in injury time.
South Africa felt action was needed. Enter the bomb squad. The starting front row didn’t even make it to half-time before being hauled off and the new men at the coalface were eager to get to work.
The Boks looked reinvigorated and it didn’t take them long to reclaim the lead at the start of the second half. Van der Merwe was stripped of the ball by Lukhanyo Am and it was shipped out to the left wing. Once again, centre de Allende had a key role to play, cutting inside Matt Scott before playing in Mapimpi for his second try of the game and his 19th in 24 Tests. The winger had to use his juggling skills to gather but it was a fine finish once again.
Elton Jantjies converted to put South Africa 15-10 ahead and the stand-off then punished Scotland further with two penalties inside five minutes. The home side were under the cosh and, trailing 21-10, they needed some inspiration. Step forward Hogg.
The move began with a lineout in the left-hand corner. Grant Gilchrist seized the ball and Ali Price fired it out the line. It went through the hands of Scott, Russell and van der Merwe who played in his captain with a left-handed overarm pass. Hogg surged to the line to reduce the deficit but Russell’s kick went wide.
The crowd were roaring Scotland on and when they won a penalty close to the South African line it was greeted as if it were a last-minute winner.
But it proved to be the final attacking fling by the Scots who were slowly suffocated in the final quarter. Townsend’s men were struggling to retain a foothold and were conceding penalty after penalty as they toiled at the breakdown. Handre Pollard, on for Elton Jantjies, took over kicking duties and, after missing with his first attempt, landed two. In between fellow sub Frans Steyn was successful with a long-range penalty as South Africa moved out of sight.