Six months ago there was reason to think that Scotland would start firm favourites against South Africa this afternoon. There were all sorts of problems in South African rugby. More and more players were joining clubs in England and France and apparently excluding themselves from selection as Springboks.
South Africa, weakened by these defections, were losing matches. There was also uncertainty about the requirement that all representative teams must have a quota of non-white players. In short, there was confusion and a consequent lack of confidence.
Things look very different now. A new coach, Rassie Erasmus, whom we learned to respect in his time with Munster, has had an invigorating effect.
He pulled off a political and public relations master-stroke by appointing the Springboks’ first black captain, the flanker Siya Kolisi, a terrific player who has made a success of the difficult job.
Erasmus seems to have insisted that it was folly to exclude players attached to French, English or Japanese clubs (just as it would be folly for the SRU to do this). So South Africa now have a much stronger and properly representative side and this is reflected in results. They beat England in a three-match series earlier in the summer and, in the Rugby Championship, they defeated New Zealand once and came within a whisker of doing so in the return match.
Now in these November internationals, they lost by a single point at Twickenham in a match for which their English-and-French-domiciled players were unavailable because it fell outside the IRB’s mandatory window when clubs must release players demanded by a national side. Then, last Saturday, they beat France in Paris after being well behind for most of the match. They’re a formidable team and the only surprise today is that they seem to have released their scrum-half Faf De Klerk to his English club, Sale – a surprise because he has been the outstanding No 9 in world rugby over the last six months.
Like most Springbok sides this one has a very powerful and skilful pack. But it also has pace on both wings, Willie Le Roux, creator and scorer of tries, at full-back, and skilful and strong centres. Beating this South African team today will take some doing.
Still, there is a confidence at Murrayfield such as we haven’t experienced for a long time.
With first Vern Cotter and now Gregor Townsend in charge we have enjoyed a succession of home victories, with only one defeat – by a mere five points to New Zealand.
Almost half a century ago, a very good Scotland team – the first, incidentally, to have a coach, though the SRU grudgingly described Bill Dickinson only as “adviser to the captain” – became so good at home that we began to speak of “Fortress Murrayfield”.
Victory today might see that description revived.
We all have opinions but few of us can be sure of the best Scotland line-up, and if you asked Gregor Townsend, he might reply “depends who we’re playing”. In truth, having four matches in four weeks, he treats Scotland as a club side, shuffling the cards repeatedly.
I suppose there are seven or eight players he would always want to be able to field against strong opposition, and almost all are in today’s team, the only certain absentee being Duncan Taylor, if he is ever fit again.
As things are, having an outstanding game one week doesn’t guarantee you a starting role in the next match. So Jamie Ritchie, splendid against Fiji, gives way to his Edinburgh club-mate Hamish Watson.
Some have expressed surprise to me that Ryan Wilson evidently belongs to the Elect. “Never quite sure just what he brings to the game,” they say, and I reply, “not sure myself, but both Gregor and Dave Rennie at Glasgow evidently hold him in the highest regard and they know a hell of a lot more about the game than either you or I do”.
In the second half last week we saw the interesting experiment of having Adam Hastings come on at stand-off and Finn Russell shuffle out to inside centre. Result: the most delicious try of the day. Another week, however, and we may see young Hastings at 12 or 13, for at least part of a match.
He is becoming a very good stand-off but he might be an even better centre. Certainly, in physique and style of running, he resembles his Uncle Scott, the outstanding Scottish centre from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, rather than his father, Gavin, the full-back.
Victory today will of course require a tremendous effort from the pack, who may hope to outpace and outlast the opposition.
Last week, suspecting that Fiji were not very good at defending a driving maul, skipper Greig Laidlaw turned down several chances to kick a penalty in favour of having the ball put into touch around the five-metre mark.
Today, I would expect him to take the conservative option and take the points. Australia lost in Cardiff last Saturday because they spurned chances of kicking penalty goals. They opted instead for the line-out and came away with nothing.