Deep down, we always suspected it would come down to this Saturday’s game against Samoa, but it has not come about in the routine way we perhaps thought it would.
No-one expected Scotland to still be in with a chance, albeit a slim one, of topping the group despite losing to South Africa. Nor was it anticipated that Samoa would arrive at St James’ Park already out of the tournament and, theoretically, with nothing to play for except pride and not even the thin morsel of a guaranteed automatic place in the next World Cup through third place looking like an achievable target.
Ahead of the tournament many also had the sinking feeling that even if Scotland did get themselves into a quarter-final shoot-out in their last Pool B game, the less than appealing reward would be a trip to play buoyant hosts England at Twickenham – a place where Scotland haven’t won since the days when Labour Party leaders were hard-left pacifists. Oh there might have been an omen there, but sadly not to be.
Japan’s wins over the Springboks and Pacific islanders have electrified the section and if Scotland do seal their place in the last eight this weekend, we may look back on the fact Vern Cotter’s men were fresh and forewarned when they met a Brave Blossoms side diminished by a four-day turnaround in that opener back in Gloucester.
After Saturday’s 34-16 win for the Springboks in Newcastle, Richie Gray – the former Gala captain who is now breakdown coach with South Africa, rather than the Scotland lock – said that the twists and turns, while perhaps not great for the blood pressure of his own coaching staff, should be welcomed.
“Every four years the World Cup gets better and better and you can’t even use the words minor nations now. It’s a disgrace if you say that any more,” said Gray. “The whole game is getting stronger and stronger, nations have good systems in place in defence and attack and it’s getting harder to play each other, which makes for an exciting World Cup.”
If Scotland are going to play their part in that excitement in the weeks ahead, then they know they will have to lift themselves from a brutal reality check on Tyneside.
They were badly exposed by a fired-up South African onslaught in the first half and at half-time there were fears that a heavy, psychologically-scarring defeat could be on the cards.
St James’ Park is 120 miles from Edinburgh and 8,300 miles from Johannesburg but you wouldn’t have guessed that when kick-off approached and it became clear the South African support was in the slight majority. Rather than a mass invasion from the Scottish Borders, the great north-east city was under siege from South Africans from Canary Wharf to Cape Town, Putney to Pretoria and beyond.
South Africa attacked the first half with all the confidence of the home team and the Scots were knocked back on their feet. Schalk Burger squeezed over for another of those tries that seem to be made more debatable rather than less by the TMO and the half ended with JP Pietersen crashing over to rack up a 20-3 lead after Scotland skipper Greig Laidlaw was pick-pocketed as he hesitated on the ball behind his retreating pack.
One thing you can say about this Scotland side under Vern Cotter is that they have the character and fitness to dig deep in matches which previous teams would have long fallen dismally out of.
The second-half response was spirited, without ever looking like a spectacular comeback. Even after Duncan Weir’s interception break allowed wings Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour to work a splendid try, the crafty Bok half-backs of skipper Fourie Du Preez and Handre Pollard kept pulling the carrot on a string well out of the Scots’ despairing reach.
Laidlaw blotted his copybook with an unnecessary off-the-ball tackle on Bryan Habana, and it was the veteran wing who put the icing on a 34-16 win that Cotter admitted afterwards was a “fair reflection”.
Boks coach Gray had words of encouragement for his homeland and he expects them and his adopted nation to be looking ahead to knock-out rugby this time next week.
He said: “Samoa losing to Japan means that’s their World Cup over. So it’s really how they motivate themselves this week now. It’s down to Scotland to go and win that game. Samoa will still be physical and Scotland will have to count the knocks they’ve picked up in a bruising encounter here.
“But you would back Scotland to go through, and hopefully we will too.
“I think Scotland are not far away from being a very good team. It’s been building for the last three years, not just in the past six or eight weeks. They’ve got a strong core of players, that group from Glasgow who are used to winning. I’ve been involved with Scottish rugby for many years and losing can be a habit as much as winning.”
SOUTH AFRICA: W Le Roux; JP Pietersen, J Kriel, D De Allende, B Habana; H Pollard, F Du Preez; T Mtawarira, B Du Plessis, J Du Plessis, E Etzebeth, L De Jager, F Louw, S Burger, D Vermuelen. Subs: F Malherbe for J Du Plessis 50mins, A Strauss for B Du Plessis 56, T Nyakane for Mtawarira 61, P Lambie for Pietersen 70, W Alberts for Burger 70, P Du Toit for De Jager 73, J Serfontein for De Allende 75, R Pienaar for Du Preez 78.
SCOTLAND: S Hogg; T Seymour, R Vernon, M Scott, T Visser; D Weir, G Laidlaw; G Reid, F Brown, W Nel, R Gray, J Gray, J Strauss, B Cowan, D Denton. Subs: A Dickinson for Reid 51, J Welsh for Nel 63, T Swinson for J Gray 68, R Wilson for Strauss 29-33, 55, S Lamont for Hogg 63, P Horne for Vernon 65, S Hidalgo-Clyne for Laidlaw 70.