SATURDAY’S match in Newcastle felt like watching a Marks & Spencer advert. This isn’t just any painful physical international encounter; this is a South African painful, physical Test match. Ouch!
Much was made of Scotland fielding a second-string XV but this looked very much like their best forward pack barring a couple of front-row forwards. Moreover, the Scots set scrum held up reasonably well, at least compared to the lineout where Fraser Brown had a difficult day. Yet, even with a strong, muscular and athletic pack, the Scots were driven backwards in the maul, bullied at the breakdown and looked like they were running into a brick wall with the ball in hand. They could take a leaf from Japan. Up against bigger opposition, the Japanese runners rarely get isolated when they take contact and instead attack in pairs or trios. The ball carrier keeps his feet while the support runner adds his oomph by binding after the tackle with legs pumping.
The other issue revolves around the playmaker because Duncan Weir takes the ball much deeper than Finn Russell. Why does this matter? Because the Scottish runners he picks usually receive the ball several yards or so before the defensive line which means they can be lined up for a dominant tackle. Russell fires bullets across a flat back line and any number of players cutting different angles can claim it so the defence don’t know who the receiver is until the ball is in his hands. The defenders have less time to adjust and the attacking side can come back against the drift looking for weak shoulders or use the inside ball in the hope that the inside defender is too lazy to fill the gap. This is why Russell is key to Scotland’s attack and why, in his absence, Vern Cotter was always likely to rest Mark Bennett against South Africa.
Bennett is a bullet for Scotland. He picks lines and angles of attack like no-one else in blue since Alan Tait retired. He is small but deceptively strong and approximately half the player he can be when Russell isn’t pulling the strings inside him, keeping the defence honest and making space. Hopefully the pair will be back in tandem for Saturday when Cotter will select the strongest XV available to him, with Greig Laidlaw leading them on to the field.
He had an ordinary outing on Saturday by his standards. His service was laboured, although that had as much to do with the Boks’ defence at the breakdown as it did any of his shortcomings. It was barely mentioned at the time but surely the skipper should have gone for goal with that first penalty awarded in South Africa’s half? It might have been at the limit of his range but it was within Weir’s. He was called forward but only to hoof the ball into the corner where Scotland lost the lineout.
The Scottish big men will surely perform better against a Samoan side that has underperformed to date and, with the quick, front-foot ball that was well nigh impossible last Saturday, the Scottish strike runners should have no excuses.