South Africa 18 Scotland 3
Scotland left Marseilles with a pocketful of regrets, South Africa less whimsical, the Rugby World Cup holders energised by a victory that softened the performance imperfections.
The shorthand version is that the Springboks’ two quick-fire tries from flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit and jet-heeled wing Kurt-Lee Arendse in a four-minute spell just after the interval defined the outcome, but the nuances of the contest were no less interesting.
Arguably the most pivotal was Jesse Kriel’s head-on-head clash with Jack Dempsey early in the game. The South African centre came from distance, had a clear line of sight, didn’t drop in height, and applied force, all of which pointed to a red card.
The Scots complained but neither Angus Gardner nor television match official Ben Whitehouse thought it worthy of further scrutiny. It wasn’t the only time that Gregor Townsend’s side had a genuine grievance when it came to the officiating.
They won’t dwell on it unduly because several shortcomings can be traced directly to Scottish frailty, a misfiring lineout (they lost five throws, several inside the South African 22), a scrum that periodically buckled and an inability to take a couple of gilt-edged scoring opportunities.
Darcy Graham’s lapse in judgment will smart most. Trailing 6-0 to a brace of Manie Libbok penalties just before the half-hour, Finn Russell’s quick hands put his wing in space.
Graham’s first decision was spot on as he dummied and accelerated through a gap; his second, in ignoring Duhan van der Merwe, cost his side a try as Libbok’s brilliant cover tackle allowed South Africa to scramble back in enough numbers. It felt like a sliding doors moment for the Scots.
It was the first real moment of attacking clarity from either team in a contest not short of endeavour but pockmarked by error. Until that point the most celebrated moment involved a push-and-shove on the touchline – nothing more than a playground spat, albeit with some outsize kids in Eben Etzebeth and Jamie Ritchie getting into it verbally.
The South African secondrow departed the game a few minutes later, after he landed awkwardly at a lineout to be replaced by RG Snyman; the Munster player enjoyed a decent impact. Scotland couldn’t get out of their own way at times, something which head coach Townsend referenced in the aftermath.
“[I was] disappointed, really disappointed. We were slow to get going in the first half. There was a bit of inaccuracy in our own play but then we built into the game. There were opportunities, not many, in our attacking game but there was a couple in the first half, and we needed to build on that second quarter, but we started with some inaccuracies again and South Africa built on the points.
“It became difficult in those conditions against that defence to play from deep. It became risky and we never got the accuracy to trouble them on the scoreboard.”
Russell not alone offered a beacon of creativity but tagged on a couple of high-profile moments in defence. Ireland hardly needs to be warned but his kicking and range of passing was a delight to watch and while the Springboks were largely vigilant and well co-ordinated, Russell did prise open some space on the edges.
The Springboks were repurposed at half-time in terms of the scrum and dominated that facet of the game, allowing them to relieve or reapply territorial pressure. Libbok’s two-from-five off the tee highlighted a recurring placekicking issue, but his no-look cross-kick for Arendse’s try underlined his precocious talent.
He gives the ‘Boks a more fluent and fluid momentum in attack, albeit that the Scots largely contained their opponents for large tranches of the match, as befits a team who had the best tackle percentage (90) in 2023 to date going into the game.
There was one brief glimmer of hope that the Scots could clamber back into the contest following Russell’s gorgeous 50/22 kick, but the quick lineout was taken with the wrong ball and from in front of the mark, negating the “try” the supporters raucously cheered.
It was South Africa that came closest to a final flourish as replacement scrumhalf Grant Williams threatened to score a try for the ages, denied by a hand-trip as he sized up the last defender on a 70-metre scoot.
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber played down the significance of the victory and the impending clash with Ireland at the Stade de France on Saturday week. He explained: “This [game against Scotland] was a slippery one for us. [We] played number five [team] in the world. They have the ability to knock off anyone on their day.
“For us it is the first step in the right direction. To get out of the pools was going to be massive, we knew that, and our next focus is Romania. We won’t even think about Ireland. The only way I will look at Ireland is that Romania have played against Ireland. It is Romania and Romania alone, not Ireland in 13 days’ time. And also the things we got wrong tonight.”
Among the areas of scrutiny for Nienaber will be placekicking, handling, the 22 missed tackles and the facility with which the Scots found some space in the wider channels, something that Ireland head coach Andy Farrell will have noted. Russell’s long passing game exposed some chinks.
For the world champions, though, they have taken a sizeable step forward in defence of the title they won four years ago in Japan and will be better for the 80 minutes. Defeat clarifies the road ahead for Scotland, where only a victory over Ireland will suffice.
12 mins: Libbok penalty, 3-0; 24: Libbok penalty, 6-0; 40: Russell penalty, 6-3. Half-time: 6-3. 46: du Toit try, 11-3; 50: Arendse try, de Klerk conversion, 18-3.
South Africa: D Willemse; K-L Arendse, J Kriel, D de Allende, C Kolbe; M Libbok, F de Klerk; S Kitshoff, M Marx, F Malherbe; E Etzebeth, F Mostert; S Kolisi (capt), P S Du Toit, J Wiese. Replacements: RG Snyman for Etzebeth 25 mins; B Mbonambi for Marx 48-52 and 56 mins; O Nche for Kitshoff 52 mins; T Nyakane for Malherbe 52 mins; D Vermeulen for Wiese 59 mins; M van Staden for Kolisi 64 mins; W le Roux for Libbok 67 mins; G Williams for de Klerk 74 mins.
Scotland: B Kinghorn; D Graham, H Jones, S Tuipulotu, D Van der Merwe; F Russell, B White; P Schoeman, G Turner, Z Fagerson; R Gray, G Gilchrist; J Ritchie (capt), R Darge, J Dempsey. Replacements: D Cherry for Turner 55 mins; J Bhatti for Schoeman 55 mins; WP Nel for Fagerson 55 mins; S Cummings for Gilchrist 55 mins; M Fagerson for Darge 64 mins; O Smith for Graham 64 mins; A Price for White 66 mins; C Redpath for Tuipolotu 66 mins.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)