By Stephen Brunsdon
A last minute try helped South Africa capture victory against a vastly improved Scotland in Nelspruit on Saturday. Intriguing and tense throughout, the Springboks’ muscle and power came to the fore as they claimed a 30-17 win on rugby’s first visit to the Mpumalanga’s new stadium.
The Springboks, coming off the back of a comfortable win over Italy the previous week, kept the same line up; with a view to form combinations ahead of the Rugby Championship. Newcomers Willie Le Roux at full back and centre JJ Engelbrecht were retained after mature performances in Durban. Captaining the side once more was influential centre Jean de Villiers, with flyers Bjorn Basson and Bryan Habana on each wing.
Scotland had lost many first choice players prior to the tour, but after a dismal showing against Samoa last week, they were dealt further blows. Captain Kelly Brown, hooker Steven Laurie and prop Geoff Cross were all sent home after last Saturday’s bruising encounter which Samoa won 27-17. So desperate were Scotland for resources, that they were forced to call upon replacement hooker Fraser Brown, who had previously only played 44 minutes of professional rugby (since recently being signed by Glasgow). Coach Scott Johnson also gave new caps to Glasgow trio Peter Murchie (full back), Tommy Seymour (wing) and Tim Swinson (second row).
With an electric atmosphere the game kicked off and almost immediately, produced the first try of the match. The Scots, failing to claim the kick off effectively left the ball to bounce precariously close to the arms of Basson. Early nerves dispelled, the Scots cleared their lines and were fortunate not to concede in the opening minute.
The most refreshing aspect of the opening quarter was that both teams attempted to play a fast game. Surprisingly, it was Scotland who were dictating the pace early on. Recovering from early jitters, they created their opening attack, centre Matt Scott proving difficult to control for the South African defence. Picking cutting angles and running into space, the Bokke were scrambling in their own 22. This is where, unfortunately new back row Arnaud Botha’s game ended after 5 minutes; knee ligament damage.
Greig Laidlaw and Morné Steyn traded penalties before Steyn’s boot took the Springboks 3 points further ahead. Good attacking play was balanced by niggling handling errors and strong defence. However, the Scots soon broke the pattern with an atypical Scottish try. Starting with a fumble from Jim Hamilton, under pressure from the oncoming defence, new capped winger Seymour burst through a gap, chipping daintily over Le Roux before gathering it and only being stopped at the line by Basson. Through a few more phases by the forwards, the ball was quickly swept out to Scott who beat the attempted intercept from de Villiers to scamper under the posts for the first score. Laidlaw converted to make it 10-6 to the visitors.
Scotland had to withstand a ferocious attack from the South Africans, and typically gave away successive penalties. The Springboks opted for the line out and spent the best part of 10 minutes barraging at the Scottish line. Under increasing pressure, the defence held out as Pierre Spies was pinged for holding on at the ruck. Steyn had another shot at goal to narrow the gap but his kick strayed to the left of the uprights. So at the break it was Scotland, almost miraculously leading South Africa (10-6), easily outplaying the former World Champions in the first 40 minutes.
Scott Johnson’s men could be forgiven for slacking off after the break, but impressively, they kept the pressure on the opposition and were soon back in the Springboks 22. A clearing kick from Steyn only found the arms of Seymour who took the ball into contact. Several pick and go runs from Alistair Strokosch and a powerful run from Tim Swinson took the Scots up to the line. Quick ball and slick hands from Matt Scott and Peter Murchie put the other centre Alex Dunbar in the corner for a brilliant try. South Africa were shocked and suddenly found themselves down 17-6 after 44 minutes. The try was bittersweet however for the Scots, having already lost Ryan Wilson and Ruaraidh Jackson (both shoulder) in the first half, they quickly lost Jackson’s replacement Peter Horner to a serious looking knee injury.
Scotland would score no more points as their effort seemed to have a fatiguing effect on the young and inexperienced side. South Africa began to flex their muscles and push on. It got harder for the Scots later on, Jim Hamilton was sin binned for striking Eben Etzebeth for a seemingly harmless push in the face. Perhaps the inclusion of a South African TMO didn’t help the Scottish cause, but a yellow card it was, and it would have serious implications for the match.
From the resulting penalty, South Africa took the line out and formed their now infamous driving maul. With the power behind them, they were almost unstoppable and it took a collapsing of the maul by Scotland to cease the Bokke steamroller. Referee Romain Poite, who seemed increasingly whistle happy in the second half blew immediately for a penalty try. A little harsh the Scots felt as no prior warning was given. Under the posts Poite went though and 7 points it became, 17-13.
It became clear from then on, that the tide was turning. South Africa started to get more possession and more territory. With it, came more penalties and Scotland were starting to get frustrated and ill disciplined. South Africa then put the apparent final nail in the coffin as JJ Engelbrecht finished off a nice backline move to score in the corner, brilliantly taking advantage of the extra man. Steyn converted effortlessly from the touchline to move the Bokke into a 20-17 lead. 10 minutes from the end and Steyn was placing the ball on the kicking tee once more, knocking over a penalty from almost half way, 23-17.
Scotland were now out on their feet, exhausted. The Springboks had been through a tough, tough battle, but looked keen to finish off in style. The Scots were back to 15 men but this couldn’t prevent them marching towards the goal line for one last try. Some very slick passing and immense power made sure that was made a reality and Jan Serfontein went over for his first international test try in the 80th minute.