You had to feel a bit for Huw Jones. He scored the most superhumanly brilliant individual try for many a year and yet all everyone wanted to talk about before last night were a couple of mistakes.
But that is surely an indicator of how far this team have come. No more can a player luxuriate in the stupendous feat of dragging two desperate, clawing Englishmen over the line with him, secure in the knowledge that Scotland don’t touch down often and rarely if ever like that. Now they do.
So Jones, who helped win the Calcutta Cup nine months ago but missed a couple of tackles against Wales in the opening Autumn Test, lined up against South Africa under fierce scrutiny. A midfield marauder who’d bagged ten tries in only 17 games but whose place suddenly didn’t seem quite so assured. An electric finisher who was now being forensically assessed for his defence, up against some forces of nature in Springbok green.
Of course, no one wearing the dark blue in any position can neglect this duty. It will always be required of a Scottish XV no matter how impressive the revival, and this one under Gregor Townsend has certainly been that.
Would Jones have to pull off the most sensational block, the role-swap reverse of his famous try where he felled a couple of rumbling South African gargantuans just inches short of the line? Maybe the whole Scotland team would have to be not so much superhuman but transform themselves into superheroes.
In the week of the passing of Marvel Comics’ creative genius Stan Lee, why not? After all, the visitors looked like they’d selected a front row of Hulk, Thing and Apocalypse with Galactus and that unshy and non-retiring fellow Destroyer behind them. At No 8 Duane Vermeulen was actually rejoicing under the moniker “The God of Thunder”. Middle row RG Snyman towered over the scene and was surely breathing thinner air. No wonder Townsend was calling them “the biggest physical challenge in world rugby”.
The South African pack were almost a stone per man heavier than their opponents but standing like monster trucks for the anthems and grunting and heaving through the opening exchanges it looked even more than that. Had the away dressing-room undergone steel beam reinforcement? Were seismometers in position around genteel EH12 to check for things – and Things – going bump in the night?
Scotland opted to play in grey. Either that or it was supposed to be white but a cheap black sock hadn’t been cleared out of the washing machine. And even more unfortunately it was Jones’ opposite number at outside centre, Jesse Kriel, who opened the scoring after a smart South African burst from inside their own half. Kriel still had to wriggle through a gap that was barely there, just like Jones in the Calcutta Cup, but found a way.
Our man was no stranger to the South Africans, having turned out for Stormers and Western Province, and he had the chance to hit back immediately. But as Finn Russell fired a kick towards the posts and Jones gave chase he seemed to be impeded. The sell-out crowd thought so and booed loudly. The first examination of Jones’ tackling came soon after. First he downed Willie le Roux then, even more impressively, the human arctic that is Steven Kitshoff. By now Jones was heavily involved, fashioning promising openings, and then came a moment of genius. Well, two moments. Twice in one scintillating break he flipped passes round his back, first to Sean Maitland and then to Peter Horne who plunged for the try. There was a scuffle behind the posts and then a wait for verification before another dashing, flashing score was confirmed for the national collection, one that seems to expand with every Scotland performance
While that was beautiful, a different kind of admiration was required for the brutal. Randomly, Scotsmen would fly through the air, sometimes illegally. One of our guys would get in the way of the Springboks’ rolling maul and he’d be swatted like a belligerent toddler firing an unwanted toy across the nursery, or a battering ram would be inserted in the thicket of bodies and the hapless victim would be propelled backwards several yards.
There was artfulness, though, in the play of stand-off Handre Pollard who conjured up a purple patch for himself, bagging ten points in mere minutes and he’d eventually be named man-of-the-match. But the star play of the first half belonged to Scotland: a trademark spurt the length of the pitch from Stuart Hogg forcing the lineout from which Hamish Watson dived over for a try.
The buccaneering full-back carried on where he left off after the resumption. Two further charges were no less thrilling, especially the first following another Pollard penalty hammering off a post. South Africa had Le Roux yellow-carded but Scotland couldn’t quite make the numerical advantage count although they should be commended for having a bloody good go, turning down the chance of three points from a penalty to seek greater glory, ultimately denied them.
Then Hogg, smashed in the middle of the park, had to retire. Scotland were a superhero down.
They couldn’t quite get the ball all the way out to Jones after that and he was less prominent in the second half but he could be happy with his performance as part of a tenacious tartan unit who, even though South Africa seemed to be sending on ever-bigger replacements as part of some grim joke, continued to battle and scrap right to the end.