Strong-willed Scots ready to match ambitious Boks
For many South Africans Scotland is best known for three things — whisky (the Irish spell it with an ‘e’), Sean Connery and tartan skirts.
When it comes to rugby they seem eternally and firmly wedged in between Argentina, Italy and the big bruisers of the game. No more it seems.
The game against Fiji last week doesn’t count, realistically. Fiji are wonderful on the eye but playing the island nation is very much a game of 15s against 7s.
Take a look at what the Scots did before that, in case you weren’t watching, and it is likely to induce a stutter step.
Over the past two years Scotland have only lost once at Murrayfield.
No points for guessing against who. Although their travelling form has been somewhat patchy, wins against England and France prove they are more than capable of taking on and dispensing with the so-called big boys.
That England scalp is held particularly fondly in recent Scottish memory. But they reckon getting one over the Saffers would be an even bigger triumph.
“Given what they’ve done recently, it would probably be our biggest win of the last couple of years,” said Scottish coach Gregor Townsend.
“Obviously, the England win [25-13 in this year’s Six Nations] stands out as memorable given they had won so many games in succession and that trophy [the Calcutta Cup] we play for makes it even more special.
“I just feel South Africa now are in the top two or three teams in the world with how they’ve played against the best teams in the world.”
There’s no denying that the Springboks are on an upward trajectory, and as heartbreaking as the loss to a woeful England was, the critical handling errors committed by the men in green and gold showed as much about their ambition with ball in hand.
It’s an aspect that has not been lost on a watchful Townsend, who this week described the Boks as “ambitious”.
“South Africa have always had a smart kicking game with an excellent chase, but what we’ve seen over the past few months is an ambition to move the ball from counterattack and a push to get their forwards passing the ball more,” the Scotland coach explained.
“Our defence will have to be strong to nullify this ambitious attacking game plan.”
It’s in defence that Scotland have proven to be particularly resolute, often frustrating the life out of their opposition and then pouncing efficiently, if not particularly spectacularly, to undo the on-day foe.
For South Africa, this is where much of the test will be won, being able to create that gain-line advantage to commit players and create space for others to exploit. Percentage football and only playing when in your opposition half are thankfully not the sum total of the Bok game plan these days.
From the Springbok side there are a few important changes to the team that lined up against France. RG Snyman, who’s been stellar off the bench, takes over at lock with Pieter-Steph du Toit, undoubtedly the standout Bok player on tour to date, moving to flank.
Duane Vermeulen will likely resume duties from his more familiar number eight position with Warren Whiteley left nursing a calf injury. With Vermeulen at the base of the scrum and offering greater stability and go-forward ball, it also seems a more than ideal time to blood scrumhalf Embrose Papier fully, the habitual benchwarmer who’s shown good signs when offered short stints at the tail end of a handful of games.
The Springboks showed plenty of guts with their 85th-minute victory over the French, but against a staunch Scottish side, this is a game that will likely require a greater degree of scoreboard control.
“To beat one of the top teams in the world, you need an 80-minute performance. You need to be at your best at the beginning and play at the same level — and the same speed — at the end,” said Townsend.
“The players have played close to their best in those games and the energy [the crowd has] brought at home is excellent,” he added.
“Against some of the best teams in the world, we’ve seen better performances from our players. We’ve risen to the challenge and that’s what we’re looking to do this week — play our best.”