ST JAMES PARK (NEWCASTLE): Last week, they set the juggernaut back on the road, this week they drove it to the brink of the quarter-finals. South Africa are back in control of Pool B. Win against the USA at Olympic Park on Wednesday, and they will qualify as the winners of the pool. What was all the fuss about?
There was nothing beautiful about this. Where last week they earned the right to weave a few patterns in the second half against Samoa, here they had to work till deep into the final quarter to put comfy distance between them and Scotland.
That they made them do so will come as some consolation to Scotland, but they seemed subdued from the start. Sides playing South Africa often do, of course, but there was a sense from even before the kick-off that Scotland entered the game less than desperate. That impression was never quite shaken off over the ensuing 80 minutes.
Scotland’s directive remains as we suspected it always would be – beat Samoa here next weekend, and they too will be in the quarter-finals.
The sharpness of motivation lay with South Africa. After the horrible year they have endured, to lose here would be to travel home early in disgrace. It showed. Scotland, meanwhile, sitting pretty on maximum points after two matches were lacking that very same edge. They had picked a side to mix it with the South Africans physically, but physicality is a function of more than mere statistics. Physicality is at least as much about attitude.
Consequently, South Africa owned the gainline. A comparison of the two second rows is instructive. The Gray brothers are more or less the same size as their opponents, Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, but they cut a contrast in body language. As much work as the Scots got through, Richie in particular, there was a laid-back air about them. The South African pair, meanwhile, were ferocious, insatiable, driven by the fear of an early return, of the loss of their place in the side.
It has not always been this way with the Springboks this season, but that in itself serves as yet another layer of motivation. It wasn’t long before the hunger told. South Africa hogged the possession, hammering away at Scotland’s defence, the back five of their scrum offering themselves again and again, Damian de Allende too, a centre the size of a No8.
Their first foray into the Scotland 22 resulted in a try, JP Pietersen hauled down out wide, before Etzebeth went close, and Duane Vermeulen, seemingly back in form already, despite his long lay-off with injury, hammered his way to the line. Scotland managed somehow to hold up the initial scramble to ground the ball, and the secondary, until Schalk Burger, with assistance from the Du Plessis brothers, managed to force the ball through the grappling limbs to the ground.
Two Handre Pollard penalties extended the Springboks’ lead to 13, before Greig Laidlaw pulled three points back on the half-hour. Their cause was further helped a few minutes later when Jannie du Plessis saw yellow for the latest particularly harsh intervention by the television match official, off to the sin-bin for basically not raising his arm high enough when hitting a ruck.
Much use it did Scotland. South Africa scored their second try while he was away, a rolling maul set up position for Fourie du Preez to draw his man and send Pietersen over for a 20-3 lead at the break.
Laidlaw landed another penalty early in the second half, before Scotland burst into life, sparked by one of those instantaneous interventions that can so swing the momentum of a rugby match. For all their ferocity, South Africa were fielding a very young midfield. They were hammering away, as usual, on Scotland’s 22, when Duncan Weir read one of Pollard’s passes brilliantly and was off. Pietersen ran him down in the Springbok 22, but he found Tim Visser in support, who slipped the ball to Tommy Seymour for a superb try.
A Pollard drop goal and penalty either side of a Weir penalty took the losing bonus point beyond Scotland’s reach, as the game entered its final quarter. Scotland’s cause was not helped by a yellow card for Laidlaw, for tackling Bryan Habana without the ball. They survived the period without deficit, but with a little more than 10 minutes remaining, another Pollard penalty – like the previous one, against the industrious Dave Denton – took the Springboks three points further clear.
It was over to Habana – who else – to put the game beyond doubt.
Scotland were building in confidence, but the lack of bite to their carries was all too notable against those of South Africa. Sure enough, one such collision resulted in a turn-over, and the Springboks took a turn. Willem Alberts was on now, as was Adrian Strauss, enormous men of muscle with zip in their legs. Carries from each of them softened Scotland’s middle, and earned Habana enough space to reach out of Sean Lamont’s tackle to score the Springboks’ third.
With seven minutes remaining, the result was settled. Normal service had been resumed.