Aidan Smith: Brutal and brilliant, South Africa's Springboks show Scotland they are world champs for a reason
A wee bit? The year 1967 might be remembered by you, good sir, for the Summer of Love and Sgt Pepper. But, really, what do seismic social and cultural events matter when a bunch of gallus footballers can suddenly and sensationally declare themselves unofficial champions of the world?
So: Murrayfield 2021 to be rugby’s Wembley of 54 years ago. That was the challenge, that was the ambition. And Stuart Hogg and his men were ready for it. “No ceiling,” the captain had stated in the build-up, meaning anything was possible, yesterday and in the near-future.
Could it be possible for Scotland to get out of their own 22? That was the only question occupying the sellout crowd as Hogg and his men conceded four penalties in the first ten minutes with the Springboks turning on the power through steepling middle-row battering-ram Eben Etzebeth absconding from the pack to continually charge through the middle of the home defence.
Ferocious, thunderous, absolutely terrifying - and that was just South Africa captain Siya Kolisi belting out the anthem. There seemed no respite for the Scots and when Finn Russell collected on his own tryline a hurried kick to safety was anticipated. Instead the playmaker flung what a previous, static, fumbling Scotland would have deemed a hospital pass out to Duhan van der Merwe. The South African-born winger sped to the halfway line - alien territory - and won a penalty, slotted by Russell.
This Scotland were not facing “wingless wonders” like the football team. Though Cheslin Kolbe was missing - the tiny tormentor of the Lions in the summer is currently injured - the Springboks posted Jesse Kriel and Makazole Mapimpe on the flanks and the latter, fed by Kolisi, raced away for the game’s first try.
Kolbe is rated by some the best player in the world. Pieter-Steph du Toit actually holds that title and he was absent too, along with Faf de Klerk and his semi-controlled explosions from the scrum. But the champs still had the Bomb Squad, the front row they keep back to batter the bewildered.
What did Scotland have? Channelling the spirit of '67, who would be their Jim Baxter, the most gallus of the gallus, who would dare to contrive outrageous, provocative stunts in the heat of battle?
Why Russell, of course. "No special plans to combat him," insisted the Boks, which Murrayfield was hoping, if this wasn't a lie, would be the gravest of mistakes.
Russell had missed a second penalty right after the first and, like everyone else in the change white strip, was being forced to subsist on scraps. A kicked pass to Hogg was wonky, retrieved by the full-back’s dramatic contortions. Never one to get flustered, though, and believing in his cavalier talent just like Baxter, Russell tried the same thing again moments later. This punt didn’t seem like it would threaten either but Van der Merwe, Chris Harris and Hogg put their heads together to fashion a try for the latter.
Scotland, the rugby team, had beaten world champions twice previously - England in 2006 and South Africa in 2010. But, not to belittle these achievements, in both cases they came three years after the opponents had claimed their great prize, when they’d begun to lose some of their power.
Overcoming World Cup winners two years after the event seemed more impressive, not least because these Springboks so recently added the Lions to their vanquished. And suddenly in this game, from being totally dominant, the visitors were behind. They didn’t like that and immediately summoned the Bomb Squad.
Two of their ain folk - Van der Merwe and Pierre Schoeman, who hails from the Mpumalanga
Province on the Crocodile River - had played big parts in enabling Scotland to claw their way back into the contest. The trick, as Russell fluffed a straightforward penalty to ease them further ahead, was going to be to stay there.
Now the Scots were needing to channel the spirit of ’06. Magnificent defence against an English pack a stone per man heavier - and exemplified by man-of-the-match Jason White - had been crucial. But South Africa began the second half like the first - forcing more errors from the Scots and unleashing Mapimpe, fleet of foot and orange of boot, for another try.
They now came with the added oomph of Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Vincent Koch. Scotland sent on their one-man TNT unit, Hamish Watson, to a huge roar from the faithful but Etzebeth pushed Russell into the middle of last week with a tackle which caused the crowd to shudder and gasp.
Unlike in ’06 when all our points came from the boot this Scotland express themselves with exciting tries and Hogg grabbed a second, sprung by a one-handed pass from Harris. The team were back within touching distance of the relentless, pulverising Springboks but couldn’t quite stay there. Twice in quick succession threatening positions were undone by the lineout failing.
The game had been pockmarked by penalties and Scotland continued to give them up. South Africa like to slow down games and by the end some in the home team might have been grateful to catch their breath because the effort required had been monumental. South Africa are brutal about how they go about their work but brilliant too. And the best in the world for a reason.
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