Scotland Rugby World Cup: Sobering opening defeat by South Africa leaves Scots needing three wins to make quarter-finals

John Jeffrey described this team as the best ever to represent Scotland – but their introduction to the 2023 Rugby World Cup was a sobering one.

South Africa outpowered them, taking control early in the second half and never really letting go to claim an 18-3 victory in Marseille, putting themselves in the box-seat in Pool B in the process. There was controversy – of course there was – most notably when Jesse Kriel, the Springboks centre, caught Jack Dempsey high in the tackle in the first minute. Nothing was given but the incident may warrant further scrutiny.

There aren’t many better sports arenas in Europe than the Velodrome, its curving roof and steep stands creating an intoxicating atmosphere in the September heat. Scotland came into the game full of hope, confident a talented backline led by Finn Russell could negate their opponents’ muscularity. It wasn’t to be. Russell was well wrapped up by the Boks who denied the playmaker space to weave his magic. Their defending was exemplary. There were glimpses of Scotland in attack but not enough. They went in at the break 6-3 down and looking confident but tries in the opening minutes of the second half from Pieter-Steph du Toit and Kurt-Lee Arendse took the wind out their sails, opening up a lead that the world champions never looked like losing.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The reality now is that Scotland will need to beat Ireland in Paris on October 7 to have any hope of making it to the quarter-finals. Between now and then they will return to their base camp in Nice and prepare to face Tonga in a fortnight’s time, and then Romania in Lille the week after before the showdown in Paris.

Scotland's Rory Darge (left) and Duhan van der Merwe look on during the defeat by South Africa in Marseille.Scotland's Rory Darge (left) and Duhan van der Merwe look on during the defeat by South Africa in Marseille.
Scotland's Rory Darge (left) and Duhan van der Merwe look on during the defeat by South Africa in Marseille.

The opening skirmishes were frantic. Much had been made of Scotland coming here to play a fast game but South Africa hadn’t read the script and were swarming all over their opponents. Russell had an early kick charged down close to his own line but Ben White was able to clear the danger. When Scotland did finally find a bit of space to unleash Duhan van der Merwe, the big winger was flattened by the Boks.

The flashpoint moment, when Kriel seemed to catch Dempsey head on head, looked like it might cost the South African. Given what had happened to England’s Tom Curry the previous night against Argentina, when his was originally yellow-carded before the bunker review system upgraded it to a red, he had every right to be worried but the game continued.

Scotland needed their set-piece to be squeaky clean but squandered two lineouts early on, South Africa stealing at the back on both occasions. There were also issues at the scrum and when Zander Fagerson was penalised, Libbok had his first pot at goal. He missed but was not so profligate next time, knocking the penalty over from 30 metres after Russell had been guilty of a deliberate knock-on.

The pace was frenetic. White had a kick charged down then combined well with Graham to to tackle Damian de Allende. The Scotland scrum-half ended up at the bottom of a pile and a skirmish broke out on the touchline, with Rory Darge and Jamie Ritchie rushing to the rescue. Things got a little unseemly and referee Angus Gardner spoke to the miscreants. Scotland fell further behind when Sione Tuipulotu didn’t release and Libbok kicked his second penalty.

Kurt-Lee Arendse scores South Africa's second try of the match.Kurt-Lee Arendse scores South Africa's second try of the match.
Kurt-Lee Arendse scores South Africa's second try of the match.

Russell was trying to spark something but the Boks were rushing at the Scots at such speed that there was no way through. The stand-off then took a sore one in the ribs from Arendse and it looked like he might have to go off. The incident was referred to the TMO, although on the grounds of an illegal tackle from the Scot. A penalty was awarded against Scotland, but Russell stayed on the pitch and was involved in Scotland’s best move of the half. They went with the long lineout again and this time it worked, Tuipulotu collecting at the tail. Russell switched it to Graham and the winger pinned his ears back and sprinted for the corner. He produced a lovely dummy but then needed to release to the supporting Van der Merwe. He didn’t and was caught.

This was more encouraging for Scotland and they ended the half on a high. Fagerson and Schoeman were starting to gain some dominance at the scrum and a couple of penalties went in their favour. One was within kickable distance and Russell slotted it over to cut South Africa’s lead to three points at the interval. If Scotland thought they had gained a foothold in the game, the Boks quickly disabused them of the notion, scoring two tries in three minutes early in the second half. The world champions came out after the break with renewed vigour and Arendse went close after an impressive passing move. The pressure continued and du Toit barged over from close range for the game’s first try. Libbok missed the conversion but then produced a brilliant no-look kick to play in Arendse in the corner. The winger wasn’t going to be denied this time. Faf de Klerk took over kicking duties and slotted the conversion from wide on the right.

Suddenly, Scotland were 18-3 behind and more than a little shell shocked. Both sides refreshed their packs and the South African Bomb Squad quickly won a scrum penalty but De Klerk was off target on this occasion. Scotland needed a spark and Graham thought he’d provided it but his try was chalked off because he was adjudged to have used the wrong ball. It seemed excessively officious and not what Scotland needed as the game slipped away from them.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

There were a couple of late flourishes. Ali Price trying to conjure something for Blair Kinghorn, but his grubber went out. Grant Williams, South Africa’s replacement scrum-half, then looked like he was on course for a dazzling solo score only to be tap-tackled by Russell.

Scorers – South Africa: Tries: du Toit, Arendse. Con: de Klerk. Pen: Libbok 2. Scotland: Pen: Russell.

South Africa: D Willemse; K-L Arendse, J Kriel, D de Allende, C Kolbe; M Libbok (W le Roux 69), F de Klerk (G Williams 75); S Kitshoff (O Nche 53), M Marx (B Mbonambi 48-53; ), F Malherbe (T Nyakane 53), E Etzebeth (RG Snyman 25), F Mostert, S Kolisi (M van Staden 64), P-S du Toit, J Wiese (D Vermeulen 60).

Scotland: B Kinghorn; D Graham (O Smith 64), H Jones, S Tuipulotu (C Redpath 67), D van der Merwe; F Russell, B White (A Price 67); P Schoeman (J Bhatti 56), G Turner (D Cherry 56), Z Fagerson (WP Nel 56), R Gray, G Gilchrist (S Cummings 56), J Ritchie, R Darge (M Fagerson 64), J Dempsey.

Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)

Attendance: 63,566.