The Springboks’ disappointing 30-17 victory over Scotland in Nelspruit at the weekend proved the rugby theorem that whatever the physical attributes or pedigree of the players involved, it’s attitude that ultimately counts. By KEN BORLAND.
The sluggish Springboks were constantly hit back in the collisions by a feisty Scottish side that responded to a crippling injury crisis by playing like men possessed; indeed, for once it was an occasion when the stereotypical cliché of William Wallace’s Bravehearts fitted the events that transpired.
South Africa were trailing 6-17 early in the second half and it took an interesting penalty try and a ridiculous yellow card to finally quell the Scottish challenge.
Even then, the Springboks were still only 20-17 ahead going into the last five minutes before a Pat Lambie penalty and a last-ditch try by Jan Serfontein increased the gap, but it was a scoreline that considerably flattered the home team.
Coach Heyneke Meyer admitted that he was disappointed with the performance, but pleased with the way his team overcame the challenge. It takes composure to dig your way out of a hole as big as the one the Springboks were in, so it must be a positive that they still managed to win despite playing so poorly.
“The media and public probably won’t be happy, but it was tough rugby and you learn more from these sort of games. We would have lost games like that last year, but we showed lots of character today,” Meyer said.
“I’m proud of the composure shown because, as the coach said, we probably would have lost in that sort of situation last year. It shows we are improving and we are learning. We’re not happy with the performance as such, but it was a tight game and a good win because of the composure shown,” captain Jean de Villiers added.
“Scotland played great tonight and to win those close encounters, with people on debut and players with just a couple of caps, teaches you more,” was Bismarck du Plessis’ view.
The Springboks, whether it was due to complacency because they believed, like everyone else, that they were going to smash the Scots, or due to fatigue after the rigours of SuperRugby, failed to match the intensity of the visitors in the collisions or breakdowns. They struggled to match the higher tempo at which Scotland so obviously tried to play on what was a fast pitch.
Meyer conceded that the breakdown was the biggest area of concern for him and that he would need to look carefully at the video of the match to see what went wrong.
The Springboks failed to get quick ball, partly because Scotland were all over the breakdown, doing their best to disrupt possession by whatever means, fair or foul.
Flank Alasdair Strokosch, in particular, was an absolute pest and was fortunate to escape more sanction than just a couple of penalties.
But the worrying thing is that the Springboks knew Scotland were going to attack the breakdown, but they did little to stop them, naively relying on the referee to sort out the mess. Quick ball is not some divine right in the game of rugby, you have to work for it and the opposition are obviously going to try and stop you from obtaining it.
Scotland certainly didn’t seem to have too many problems getting quick ball for their backline to use.
“The biggest concern was the breakdown. Most of the time we get quick ball in SuperRugby. But, probably because of guys not rolling away, we couldn’t get that today. In the second half we got some quicker ball, but I was frustrated that in this game we didn’t get quick ball before that.
“We need to adapt at the breakdowns, but we had two young players there. Francois Louw sorted it out last year for us and he’ll be back next week.
“The media probably underestimated Scotland, but I knew we were in for a tough game because the only way they could stay in the game was to play right on the line,” Meyer said.
The Springboks defence was also lethargic and lacked intensity and there were many occasions when they lived dangerously, only some determined scrambling or a loss of footing by the Scottish backs preventing a third try from being conceded.
The incident in which lock Jim Hamilton received a yellow card pulled the rug out from under Scotland’s feet even more so and quite rightly caused uproar in their camp.
South Africa were 13-17 behind at the time and, like a groggy boxer, were still trying to get up off the canvas as, up till then, Scotland had knocked back just about everything they had thrown at them.
What Hamilton did to Eben Etzebeth was part and parcel of any game of rugby and occurs in almost every match at adult level. In a year of poor officiating and ill-judged rulings by TMOs, this atrocious decision by referee Roman Poite and fourth official Gerrie Coetzee was the absolute nadir.
“I’m bitterly disappointed. We could have won, I would go so far as to say we should have. I have never seen a yellow card like that before, it was nothing but an embarrassing decision for handbag stuff. You watch a year of rugby and you’ll see it in every game, four or five times in that game alone.
“The punishment does not fit the crime. All we ask for is consistency. I was asked after the game if I wanted to cite anyone, and the fourth official would probably be a good place to start,” Scotland coach Scott Johnson ranted.
Poite’s decision to award a penalty try when Scotland collapsed a maul heading for their tryline could also be questioned because he had failed to warn them for that offence previously.
But to the Springboks’ credit, they took control of the game in the final quarter, mostly due to them having clear enough heads to revert back to basics. Scotland were pinned in their own half for the majority of the last 20 minutes and the ability of coach Meyer and captain De Villiers to refocus their team made all the difference.
“It doesn’t help an inexperienced team under pressure to scream at them. I had to take deep breaths, but Jean is an unbelievable captain, he got the team playing back to basics. He handled the situation correctly,” Meyer said. DM
Photo: South Africa ‘Springboks’ rugby union team head coach Heyneke Meyer answers a question during a news conference ahead of their Autumn Test rugby match against Scotland, in Edinburgh, Scotland November 14, 2012. REUTERS/David Moir
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas