Gregor Townsend’s side open their 2023 campaign against Saturday’s conquerors South Africa in Marseille then conclude their pool fixtures against Ireland in Paris.
If Ireland’s win over New Zealand was the most eye-catching result of the weekend, then Scotland’s 30-15 loss to the Springboks was less surprising.
Disappointing, yes, but not dispiriting according to Townsend who said his side’s problems in the scrum and lineout were “very fixable”.
A lot of rugby has still to be played before the seven-week jamboree in France but it is unlikely South Africa’s game-plan will evolve significantly over the ensuing 22 months. Whether Scotland can find a way of overcoming it remains to be seen. It’s 11 years since they beat the Boks and nearly five since their last win over Ireland. On the plus side, this squad has shown itself to be unfazed by history as evidenced by the long-awaited away wins last season over Wales, England and France.
Parts of Saturday’s game showed Scotland at their best. The two tries from Stuart Hogg were superbly created and expertly finished but Townsend was left to rue a second half in which his side’s lineout deteriorated and their opponents dominated the breakdown. The coach acknowledged the Scots were second best at the scrum throughout and the concession of penalties after the interval saw South Africa stretch away.
“We knew the set-piece was going to be a real challenge,” said Townsend. “They are up there with the best in the world around their scrum and lineout, their game is based on having more set-pieces.
“From a positive, I felt our maul defence was very good. They had a number of mauls in our 22 and we either put pressure on the source - Sam Skinner getting a great lineout steal - or we held out. And that’s a maul that’s scored a lot of tries over the years.
“Our scrum wasn’t good enough throughout the 80 minutes. At times it looked good and at times the assistant referee was shouting ‘green, green!’ but the referee didn’t seem to hear him. But we know at times that South Africa had the upper hand at the scrum.
“In terms of lineout, the second half was disappointing because we had some innovative ways of getting the ball in the first half to provide us with some possession. But we’ll look back at that second half and obviously say we didn’t win enough lineout. So that’s for all of us - players and coaches - to do a better job next time.”
Scotland had led 10-8 at the interval and finished the half strongly. Finn Russell was off target with a penalty in injury time - one of three kicks at goal he missed - but the home side went into the dressing room with their tails up.
Russell had been the architect of Hogg’s first half try, arcing a glorious cross-kick into the arms of Duhan van der Merwe on the left wing. The Worcester man exchanged passes with Chris Harris and Hogg before the full-back pounced on the bouncing ball to score.
But Scotland’s advantage was wiped out after just two minutes of the second half when the impressive Makazole Mapimpi scored his second try of the match following a perfectly timed pass from Damian de Allende after van der Merwe had been stripped of possession.
It was a struggle from then on in for Scotland who conceded 15 penalties throughout to South Africa’s nine. Hogg’s second try offered hope but the Boks turned the screw, forcing penalty after penalty which were dispatched by Elton Jantjies, Handre Pollard and Frans Steyn.
“The game is not just about you and what you can do with your game-plan, it’s about how you can react to what the opposition are doing, and in the second half the Springboks performed their roles really well and we didn’t,” acknowledged Townsend.
“But there was a lot to take from that first half, whether it was our defence, whether it was our kicking game, whether it was the speed we got into play, our contact area and our lineout. And if we had kept that up it could have been a different story. Obviously we didn’t keep those standards up and South Africa got three, six, nine points ahead which put us under a lot of pressure.
“I felt the [second] try Stuart scored was tremendous play. It came from a lineout on the 22 and it came from some backs recognising space and executing their passes under pressure to free up two players out wide. We know there were more opportunities like that in the game that we didn’t take. That’s sport. You’ve got 80 minutes to put your best performance out there and unfortunately we didn’t do that.”
Having dismantled Tonga, then beaten world-ranked No 3 side Australia before losing to the Boks, Scotland will conclude their Autumn Nations Series campaign against Japan at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Memories of the 2019 Rugby World Cup defeat in Yokohama remain fresh for the Scots but Japan have had a difficult time since, playing only five matches due to Covid restrictions. They were thrashed 60-5 in Dublin a fortnight ago and won their first Test since the World Cup on Saturday when they beat Portugal 38-25 in Coimbra.
“Japan will be a tough opponent,” said Townsend. “We won’t look too much into their result against Ireland. They came close to beating Australia, and they beat us two years ago, so we know what a difficult team Japan are.
“If you give them ball they will cause you problems, so that will be a very tough game for us and it will show the resilience of the group if we can bounce back after a painful defeat.”