Springboks won but Dark Blues were mesmerising
The previous weekend's try festival against Fiji was a mere appetiser. This was a prime fillet steak of a Test match.
As the absorbing game unfolded at a mesmerised BT Murrayfield on Saturday evening, the mind couldn’t help but drift back 21 years to a meeting between these nations in which both head coaches, Gregor Townsend and Rassie Erasmus, played. Memories linger of dashing Boks full-back Percy Montgomery running riot as the world champion tourists demolished the Scots 68-10 on their own patch.
In the traumatising aftermath of that shellacking it was difficult to envision Scotland ever being anything more than roadkill to the southern hemisphere rugby superpowers.
On Saturday, Scotland produced rugby as good as we have seen during the recent Vern Cotter/Townsend resurgence and arguably one of the best tries ever scored by the national team as Huw Jones’ breathtakingly brilliant back-of-the-hand passes put Pete Horne over for a simply magical score.
Townsend watched Tommy Seymour go past him up the tryscorers’ list with the wing’s hat-trick against Fiji, and seven days later may well have seen his fabled “Toony flip” pass from Paris in 1995 surpassed as Scotland’s greatest ever creative assist.
The coach is likely to be more than happy with that and the fact that his side are exhilarating sell-out home crowds with a brand of attacking play which makes the so-called “champagne rugby” of France we watched with awe and envy in the 1970s and 80s seem like Lambrusco.
And yet, Townsend’s flash of genius, which sent Gavin Hastings storming under the Parc des Princes posts, contributed to a famous victory. Unfortunately, Jones could not say the same at the weekend.
As with the All Blacks game almost a year before to the day, the Scots couldn’t close out. There was slackness at times, soft tries conceded, kickable points turned down, and frustrating inaccuracies as this marvellous match headed into a crescendo in which Scotland still had chances to snatch the victory.
Spirited defeats are no longer acceptable to Scotland supporters or the squad themselves, and the news filtering through from Dublin that Ireland had beaten the All Blacks as the post-match press conferences at Murrayfield went on, was proof that taking that final step further is not unachievable.
“My general feeling is the effort put in by the players was outstanding,” said Townsend. “There are obviously parts of our game we need to improve.
“Some of it is relevant to this opposition, who we won’t face again very soon.
“Maybe in 12 months’ time we might face them [in World Cup knockout stage].
“But we won’t play against a team with that line speed and that forward pack in the Six Nations. We have to make sure that what we’re learning in today’s game is relevant to beating Argentina.”
After Jesse Kriel had crashed over for an early score that won’t have pleased defence coach Matt Taylor, Scotland settled and then hit back with that glorious try finished off by Horne, which was confirmed after referee Romain Poite had taken a look at the first of Jones’s tremendous passes out of the back door.
Scotland’s frustrating habit of making mistakes just after scoring continues, and South Africa stand-off Handre Pollard waltzed in as the visitors went on to move 17-7 up.
The boot of Greig Laidlaw and an inventive try from a lineout which saw Hamish Watson sweep around to stun the Boks forwards brought things level.
That would probably have been a fair reflection of an enthralling half of quality Test rugby but indiscipline allowed Pollard to nudge his side three points to the good.
The second half was far less open as the huge South African forwards took more of a grip and the understandably tiring Scottish pack couldn’t quite match the ferocity and accuracy of the opposition.
With South Africa 23-20 up, the Scots kicked a penalty for the corner rather than the posts. In hindsight, the wrong option, although Pollard missed a couple of shots himself, Elton Jantjies taking over to add the final points of the game for a victory which, for all the Scots’ brilliance at times and the niggling sense of frustration, was deserved.
Townsend now looks ahead to Argentina and admitted that there could be a fair few changes for the final Test of the year.
“Potentially. There will be some tired bodies,” said the coach. “For players who have played three games, they will be tired.
“November does give us an opportunity to test our depth. But Argentina are a really good side, so we need to pick a team able to give us a chance.
“For both those reasons, I don’t believe it will be the same next week.”