GIVEN the Springboks’ standing in the global game, Scotland’s recent record against them of one win in the last decade isn’t so bad.
It may not sound like much to boast about but it equals the number of victories the national team have chalked up against Wales over the same period.
The South Africans are a conservative bunch by inclination and coach Heyneke Meyer is more so than most. It means that the Bokke game plan is like a McDonald’s menu, love it or hate it you know what’s coming. They hit you head on and when that doesn’t work they do it again… only harder. We have seen glimpses of a wider, more expansive game but the Boks threw the ball about in the Rugby Championship decider against the All Blacks at Ellis Park last month because they needed to score four tries rather than any Damascene conversion to running rugby.
This conservative streak stretches to selection. Two years out from the World Cup, Meyer could have used this match to experiment with a number of hungry youngsters such as the athletic lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, who is touted as Bakkies Botha’s eventual replacement. Instead we get the gnarled, 34-year-old veteran in the flesh, making his first Springbok appearance since the 2011 World Cup and bidding for a seat on the plane for 2015.
Botha is not the only veteran in green. Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie pair up in the midfield for the umpteenth time. JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana have 142 caps between them on the wings. Only at stand-off has Meyer taken what might be construed as a gamble, picking Patrick Lambie over his favourite, Morne Steyn, and even then the starter has 30 caps to his name while Steyn is nursing a bad back.
Any talk of a bold, new enterprising Springbok approach to rugby is a tad premature. Given the weapons at their disposal, they can and will score tries from all corners, if afforded the time and space, but hark back to Jake White’s comments before the 2007 Rugby World Cup – “we are a very good team without the ball” – and that much remains true today. The Boks’ stonewall defence meant Wales didn’t look remotely like scoring a try last Saturday and Scotland’s rejigged back division will do well to go one better today.
The Scots seem to operate best against the Boks when coming off a spanking. They beat South Africa back in 2010 one week after New Zealand had run up 49 points at Murrayfield. And they gave the Springboks a fright in Nelspruit last June but only after falling tamely to the Samoans one week earlier. A decent win over Japan doesn’t demand the same sort of redemptive performance.
Scott Johnson appears to be targeting the first and the last Tests of this autumn trio, Japan and the Wallabies, since two out of three would give Scottish rugby a boost and why else would he field a weakened side this afternoon?
Admittedly some of the changes have been necessitated by injury. Duncan Taylor has a chance to put down a marker playing against Springbok skipper De Villiers, one of the greats of modern rugby. Scotland need alternatives at inside centre and Taylor at least has the physical attributes to fill Matt Scott’s shirt. We’ll know more about his mental wherewithal after this test. Elsewhere this is a miniature trial. The best player in the second row will probably join Tim Swinson in the line-up against the Wallabies next Saturday and the best flanker between Alasdair Strokosch and John Barclay will keep his place, while skipper Kelly Brown slots back into either the six or seven shirt.
But the absence of the Scotland skipper from today’s match squad altogether and the fact that Ryan Grant is manning the reserve bench – insurance if you like, in case things get ugly at the coal face – shout out the obvious. We can argue the toss about the reasons behind the decision but Johnson has selected a weakened team against one of the giants of world rugby in every sense of the word.
It is always an uphill struggle against the big teams and for Scotland to beat South Africa absolutely everything needs to fall into place, starting with selection. By picking a weakened side, Johnson is unwittingly giving his team tacit leave to lose today. So they will..