First, the defence, especially in that torrid first quarter of an hour was very good. Then it was ended by an audacious breakaway: Finn Russell’s bold long pass along our try-line, Duhan van der Merwe’s splendid run beyond half-way, which led to a penalty, enabling Finn to put us, astonishingly in the lead.
Then, despite South Africa’s forward strength, control of the set-scrum and the line-out, we remained in the game till ten minutes from the end, the try-count equal, two splendid tries from either side. If Finn had kicked the penalty on the stroke of half-time and converted Stuart Hogg’s second try, we might even… but there it is, we didn’t and couldn’t.
The absence of a reliable top-class goal-kicker is something we are going to have to live with for a bit. Finn, I’m told, has kicked at goal for club and country only 40 times at most in the last three seasons. Greig Laidlaw and Chris Paterson before him probably took that many goal kicks in four or five matches every year.
Meanwhile, we have to admit that we are at present some distance behind Ireland. Where we stand in relation to England, who come to Murrayfield in February on the first Six Nations weekend, may be clearer after they play South Africa at Twickenham today. They beat a weary and weakened Australia quite easily last week, without being very impressive. They scored a good early try, then, despite their control of the game, went some 75 minutes before crossing the Australian line again. They are unlikely to enjoy such forward dominance against the Springboks this afternoon.
For us, today’s match should be entertaining. It is, I suppose, a revenge encounter. Two things should be said about our defeat in the World Cup. First, the Japan-Scotland game was one of the best in the tournament. Second, we tend to forget that Japan also beat Ireland and so reached the quarter-final. It was our game against Ireland that was depressing, not the Japan one.
Gregor Townsend has named a XV which looks very close to the one likely to start the Six Nations. Rory Sutherland, if fit, or Pierre Schoeman might replace Jamie Bhatti at loosehead. Likewise, if fit, Jonny Gray might be preferred to either Grant Gilchrist or Scott Cummings. Some day we hope to see Cameron Redpath, unavailable since his impressive debut at Twickenham last season, back fit and in form, though, given how wretchedly poor his club, Bath, have been this season, it may be hard for a centre to find form there. Then there is a question-mark over number 8. I am a great admirer of Matt Fagerson, a brave and skilful player who never gives less than a hundred per cent, but, because he is not the biggest or most powerful number 8, he rarely dominates a match. That said, he is still very young. Power can be added to his undoubted skill.
In one sense today’s match is almost irrelevant to the Six Nations, because Japan pose very different problems to any of our rivals there. This doesn’t matter and in any case it’s wrong, discourteous and usually foolish, to approach any international match against a good team as a trial for future challenges. Japan were poor in Dublin three weeks ago, shipping 60 points. They will surely be much better today, but it will be disappointing, and a setback, if we don’t win by a fair margin.
Perhaps today, or sometime this season, Stuart Hogg will become Scotland’s record try-scorer. Given that so many more internationals are now played than in the amateur days, it’s a measure of how poor Scotland have been in the professional era that our individual try-scoring record is so much lower than that of England, Ireland, Wales and France. Indeed Ian Smith, one of the two men whose record of 24 international tries Hogg will surely break won his first Scottish cap almost a hundred years ago – in 1924. Back then there were no overseas tours and rarely more than 4 international matches in a calendar year. Ian Smith played 32 times for Scotland 1924-33. Tony Stanger, equal with Smith on 24 tries, won 52 Scottish caps, 1989-98. Like Hogg, he is a Hawick man.