Small margins likely to decide crunch match in Newcastle, so Cotter’s men must play to their full potential and stop South Africa’s big runners in their tracks
St James’ Park is on top of the River Tyne valley, which Newcastle sits in, and dominates the skyline. It is a cathedral to the local passion for football but, at least for this weekend, it will play host to one of the matches of this Rugby World Cup when Scotland attempt to finish off the wounded Springboks.
The stands crowd around the pitch, almost close enough to touch the players on the sidelines and wil be full to capacity. Ticket touts can expect a bumper day. It guarantees an electrifying atmosphere.
The last time these two teams met, the Scots were on their knees before kick-off after three tough Tests and goodness knows how much travel around both American continents. The Scots crawled off the field on the wrong end of a 55-6 scoreline. They start as underdogs today but quietly fancy their chances of an upset. So what has changed?
It might be quicker to determine what hasn’t. The team has been radically overhauled with just three starters from that South African shellacking – Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Duncan Weir. Nine of the starting Boks XV return today.
The Scotland pack has been beefed up by some South African muscle in the form of Willem Nel and Josh Strauss, the latter forming a handy looking partnership with another breakaway, David Denton, whose rugby apprenticeship was also spent in the Republic.
In fact, forwards’ coach Jon Humphreys laid out the strengths of the side pretty well yesterday when he was forced to deny, yet again, that Scotland were fielding a weakened side.
“You have to do these things,” he said with just a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice. “Look at the two Gray brothers. We have a fantastic back row. Blair Cowan played every single game in the Six Nations and was extremely unlucky not to get in the initial 31-man squad.
“We have Gordon Reid, who played extremely well against France. There is Fraser Brown, who has arguably been our best forward in this tournament so far. He has been outstanding.
“We are comfortable with what we are putting out, we are confident in the group we have picked. They have all worked unbelievably hard to be here. They are an extremely proud group of people, I haven’t seen a more together group and they are all buying into the same thing.
“So, no, I can’t understand why people say it’s a second-string.”
Of course it isn’t second string but nor is it the team that Vern Cotter would field if Scotland were playing in the World Cup final. There are little chinks in the armour that South Africa will exploit.
At centre, Richie Vernon is a pretty solid defender but he doesn’t have the eye for a gap that Mark Bennett does, nor does he have the acceleration to exploit it. He is also hopelessly green, with just two Test starts to his name in his new midfield position which, by a nasty coincidence, is the most difficult channel on the field to defend.
Gordon Reid is third-choice loosehead and the Scottish front row boasts 27 caps to 210 in the opposition trio, which must come into play at some point. The suspicion remains that Tim Visser’s defence has yet to match the excellence of his attack and Duncan Weir is a little more predictable than the man he replaces at stand-off Finn Russell.
And still South Africa fail to impress, even if Heyneke Meyer has stumbled upon his best XV – more by luck than judgment. So far this year the Boks have finished second to Australia, New Zealand, Argentina (in South Africa) and Japan in this World Cup. They have beaten Argentina (in the South American re-match) and Samoa last weekend, but only after an ordinary first-half performance.
In that respect, they are similar to Scotland, who also started slowly in both of their matches and one wag at the press conference suggested that the coaches should offer their half-time talk before kick-off to solve the problem.
Scotland’s problem is not solved quite so simply but at least they know what it is. The lock Tim Swinson was asked specifically about lessons learned from the Pumas’ 37-25 victory in Durban.
“Take away the gain line,” was his succinct response. South Africa are a very good front-foot team but they struggle if the defence can crowd them out and, vitally, continue the full court press for the full 80 minutes. Stop their big runners and you stop South Africa.
Scotland have plenty enough beef on the field to halt the Bokke in their tracks, which is why the driving maul could be the key to this game, an area where Scotland have had their share of problems. Would Scotland, Humphreys was asked, try to box clever at the maul by standing off and milking penalties or the scrum feed?
“We take a lot of pride in being very physical in those areas,” replied the forwards coach. “So that’s what we’re hoping to do. To stand off teams you rely on referee’s interpretation. We’d rather have our destiny in our own hands and do what we have to do right.”
It sounds like the Scots plan to fight the Boks on ground of the opposition’s choosing, which is a brave call given that South Africa seem to have a small edge in this area, as in several others.
It might just be enough in what promises to be a close encounter.