GREIG LAIDLAW is urging Scotland to carry on where they left off against the Springboks when confronting Tonga at the end of the EMC Autumn Test series on Saturday in order to provide momentum into the Six Nations Championship.
Although losing 10-21 to the world’s second ranked side, encouragement came with the way Scotland appeared better equipped to deal with what is sure to be a robust confrontation at Pittodrie in Aberdeen.
Laidlaw, who converted Scotland’s only try by substitute scrum half Henry Pyrgos during a second-half revival which contrasted with a dour opening spell in which he struck an early equalising penalty, admitted: “We are up to speed with the physicality required. It was a physical game and we finished strongly. Unfortunately we were camped in their ‘22’ for a lot of the second half, so it was disappointing not to be able to cross the line more. That is something we will have to look at.
“For us there was definitely another try there, possibly two. If we had got that we were right in there.”
In the ultimate “game of two halves”, Scotland were entitled to feel bemused at being given scope to cough up ruck possession the longer the game developed, whereas earlier it seemed Irish referee George Clancy was intent on a much more pedantic approach, which prevented the sort of tempo on which they thrive.
This played into Springbok hands, although Laidlaw, like Scotland coach Andy Robinson, was much more inclined to look for failings within the camp than cry wolf. Laidlaw, however, did acknowledge: “A lot of slow ball in the first half made it very hard to attack and put us on back foot. It was one of these games where he (Clancy) seemed to be letting South Africa slow the ball. He was calling ‘hands off, hands off’ and not penalising them.
“To be fair, I was a little bit too far away to know what was going on (and) I think both teams struggled at times.”
In a reference to how Scotland had gained plaudits for their positive approach which yielded three tries in defeat by New Zealand the previous week, the Edinburgh stand off and captain said: “It was different from last week and hard to put a finger on why, but that slow ball in first half upset our rhythm. We let their first man in (at rucks) and allowed him to slow the ball up, but in the second half there was the same sort of feeling as last week and our try was a training ground move which came off. We thank the forwards for that one.”
That touchdown came from a line-out and other set-piece work gained pass marks.
“I thought our scrummaging was brilliant from the whole front five. South Africa pride themselves on their scrum so we stood up well,” Laidlaw continued.
“We take a lot out of that but it was tough with all that slow ball. We ran into a lot of brick walls, hard brick walls. The lesson we need to learn is to get quicker into the tackle contest.
“The crucial area lies in getting first man in to allow us to play that kind of speed. Sometimes we never did that and it killed us. If you let a team like South Africa get in front of you they are hard to claw back.”
Another positive feature was the way Scotland were prepared to put kicks into the corner and try to match the feared South African maul. Some might have preferred to see Scotland take any points on offer from goal-kicks, but that was debatable .
So, another calendar year passes without a Scottish win at Murrayfield and doubtless the players and staff will be glad to be back this weekend at Pittodrie, where Scotland have an unbeaten record taking into account victories over Canada and Samoa in recent years.
Yet if Tonga are to be overcome then Scotland have to eliminate the sort of errors that saw an attacking position conceded through a crooked line-out throw and two penalties offered up within touching distance of the Springbok line.
Here, though, it seemed interpretations changed as the second half developed.
It is one thing setting the refereeing stall out early, but both sides struggled to get on a wavelength for long periods and when, eventually, the Scots were able to inject all-important tempo, they appeared to be doing little differently from when they were being penalised heavily – one classic example coming late on when the breakdown was littered with bodies near the South Africa posts despite players being required to stay on their feet.
Coach Andy Robinson was not inclined to look any further than his own team’s inabilities to adapt on the hoof and the Scots further contributed to their downfall with some dodgy decision-making on and off the pitch. And why Laidlaw, who was having a sound game and benefiting from the extra protection afford him by colleagues this season, was withdrawn with 12 minutes remaining at 10-21 was indeed a mystery.
By contrast, Ruaridh Jackson, normally full of potential, emerged at stand off to kick away possession and fire a bullet pass into the face of Tim Visser at close range when a try beckoned. The ultimate frustration came with referee Clancy in finally backing up regular warnings to South Africa and issuing a yellow card to Duane Vermeulen, but too late to affect the outcome.
Scotland had been undone by allowing Adriaan Strauss a try in each half – one from a maul which followed a line-out penalty and the other an intercept – while Pat Lambie kicked a conversion and three penalties as a cushion against that try by Pyrgos and Laidlaw’s penalty and conversion. Those points took Laidlaw’s international tally to 83 from 12 outings, leapfrogging Alan Tait (81) and Michael Dods (80) to lie 13th overall.
Sadly, Jackson could hardly be said to have put pressure on Laidlaw and that is at the heart of concerns because Scottish options now look limited.
This defeat also ensured Scotland, for the second successive World Cup draw, will go into the third tier of nations.
Derek Brierly, Meadowbank: “I think we had chances to win that game, especially in the second half, but just didn’t take them. That was partly because of some great defending by South Africa, but we keep shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Will Scott, Tollcross: “Kelly Brown had a good game and that was really sharp thinking by him for the Scotland try, but, as captain, he should have taken the points when we had all that pressure in the second half and got penalties. Instead, he went for the lineout or scrum and we wasted the chances.”
Colin Wilson, Gorgie: Ruaridh
Jackson again looked like a guy with no confidence. His chip ahead at the end was just stupid and poorly executed.”
Mike Greenwood, Leith: “There’s nothing to lose now against Tonga so I hope Robinson will try something different. A lot of the guys played okay but there is still something missing in midfield. Maybe he should just throw caution to the wind and start with Pyrgos and Scott or Hogg at half back and see where it takes us.”
Al Masterton, Blackhall: “I don’t think we are that far behind South Africa and that game was there to be won, but we don’t have the mental toughness that they have. But it’s another defeat and I think it shows how ridiculous [Mark] Dodson looks for saying we would win the World Cup.”
Jon Smart, Davidsons Mains: “I think our rugby team is heading the same way as our football team – down the world rankings and into oblivion.”