These two teams sit side by side at fifth and sixth in the world rugby rankings and for much of Saturday’s Murrayfield match it was equally difficult to split the two. The victory went South Africa’s way but it could easily have been a different story and Greig Laidlaw will wonder about one kickable, second-half penalty that the Scotland skipper opted to aim at the sidelines.
It was a cracking good contest with something for everyone. South Africa got the win they deserved but Scotland proved they can compete at this level. Both teams displayed occasional brilliance when scoring tries in the first half although the match morphed into a tactical kicking contest after the break and the home side visibly tired in the final quarter.
There were plenty of positives for Scotland and full-back Stuart Hogg was certainly one of them. One penalty of his took play from deep inside Scotland’s 22 to within 20 metres of the Bokke try line. In the second half Handre Pollard hit the post with a penalty, Hogg ran it back like an American footballer and only a last-ditch tackle prevented a length-of-the-field try. The crowd gave him a warm ovation when he left the field with an injured ankle late in the game.
Following his travails against Wales it was almost inevitable that Huw Jones should bounce back with an inspirational performance. His twin behind-the-back passes created Peter Horne’s try and he was a threat all afternoon. And only in the final quarter did Scotland’s forwards concede anything to the bigger South African pack.
Both teams showed commitment, skill and scoring but the visitors edged the battle of the breakdown and they had the best player on the field in stand-off Pollard, who gave a masterclass in game management. His cover tackle stopped Tommy Seymour in the second half, he scooped 18 individual points and his excellence only highlighted the inconsistent nature of his opposite number because Finn Russell had one of his up-and-down displays.
South Africa were first out the blocks with the opening try on six minutes and it was a thing of beauty. Pollard sparked the move, making the initial break around his own 22 before offloading to electric scrum-half Embrose Papier who made good ground. The ball went through three more sets of hands before the Bokke were forced to recycle and Jessie Kriel picked his spot between two defenders for a score that was simplicity itself, almost as good as the Scots’ own response.
Huw Jones carried the can for that Cardiff loss but the sometime Stormer showed brilliant skills on Saturday afternoon, taking full advantage of Malcolm Marx jumping out the defensive line to flip the ball behind his back, twice in the same move, first to Sean Maitland who returned his pass for Jones to do the same trick with Horne, sending his centre partner over the line.
Jones’ next trick was a little less impressive, as he lost the ball running back the restart and Pollard ran around Ryan Wilson, whose lack of pace in the wider channels was cruelly exposed. The classy stand-off converted both tries and kicked a 24th-minute penalty only to see his half-back partner Papier miskick straight into the Edinburgh night sky and Laidlaw got the three back almost immediately.
The Scots continued to take the game to South Africa and one moment of magic from Hogg led to the next score. The full-back collected a kick and scorched the Murrayfield turf as he raced up the far touchline, his kick ahead gratefully booted into the back row of the East Stand by the covering full-back Willie le Roux. From the five-metre lineout the Scots went to their playbook and pulled out a sneak play, lifting Ben Toolis only to throw low for flanker Hamish Watson who raced around the front and the flanker was never going to be halted from point-blank range. Laidlaw’s conversion levelled the scores at 17 apiece, only for Pollard to kick a late scrum penalty to give the visitors a slender advantage at the break.
A yellow card went to Le Roux for a deliberate knock-on five minutes after the restart. Laidlaw made him pay off the tee but Scotland made a hash of the restart and Pollard reclaimed a three-point lead just minutes later. Laidlaw had another chance to level but opted to kick to the corner rather than take an easy penalty. The gamble didn’t pay off.
Normally so assured, Pollard then sclaffed one horrible shot at goal that barely got off the ground, so when the Boks got a penalty eight minutes from time it was substitute Elton Jantjies who stepped up to give the visitors a little space.
Russell sent a speculative drop-kick wide but the Scots had one last opportunity to snatch something at the death. With three minutes on the clock they won an attacking lineout but the Bokke big men rolled up their sleeves and repelled all boarders with a finality that could not be gainsaid.