A powerful forward performance enabled the Springboks to avenge the horrors of 2010 with 21-10 win over Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday, but the failure of the team to play for a full 80 minutes remains a concern.
Whereas last week in Dublin it was the Boks who started poorly and then finished well, this time around it was the Boks who started with the momentum of seven days ago only for them to allow the Scots back into the game just when it looked likely that they would put the hosts away.
While it was certainly an improvement on the last two visits to Scotland, with one defeat and one narrow win reflected on the South African record here since 2008, coach Heyneke Myer admitted afterwards that there was a lot to work on before his team could face England at Twickenham in the last match of the tour with confidence.
“It was a reversal of last week, with our second 40 minutes being a bit like our first half in Dublin, but while I don’t want to make excuses, it has been a long year for us and there are players who are struggling later in the game,” said Meyer.
Indeed, there were times in the second half when some of the Boks looked out on their feet, but that said, they did well not to lose composure when the Scots were coming at them in a last half hour where the Boks hardly got their hands on the ball. Whereas in the first half the entire game was played in Scottish territory, and it was the Scots who got penalised, later in the match it was the Scots who played in the Bok half and the visitors who were penalised.
Ultimately how you look at the game and what the Boks take out of it should depend on which part of it you take more seriously -- the first 50 minutes, in which the South Africans were highly impressive and dominated the game, or the last 30, when the momentum quite simply had swung against them.
The world’s No 2 ranked team held their defence firm, but there were a few nervous moments when Scotland threatened to complete a comeback win not unlike that the South Africans scored on the other side of the Irish Sea a week earlier. Skipper Jean de Villiers did well to keep his men on track and they retained composure, but the failure to play for 80 minutes should be of concern ahead of Twickenham.
In reality though, the Boks had the game well won before replacement scrumhalf Henry Pygros ghosted his way through an unsuspecting defence off a lineout move on the corner flag with just under half an hour to go. The Boks had scored their second try through an Adriaan Strauss intercept just a few minutes before that, and with an 18 point lead and with themselves applying most of the pressure, it looked like plain sailing.
And it had been plain sailing up to that point. The Boks were certainly a lot better than a 14-3 lead at halftime, and it looked only a matter of time before the Boks would make all the pressure count and run away with the game.
There had been a few nervous South Africans about Edinburgh in the past few days, but the nerves brought on by what happened last time were quickly swept away by the physicality of the Bok opening, and they quickly made it clear that their big pack was going to be too much for the Scots to handle.
On the last two visits here, the Boks allowed the Scots to get their tails up by having some good passages in the early part of the game, but although the visitors never got away on the scoreboard until much later, De Villiers’s men had most of the possession in the first half and hardly gave the Scots a chance of playing outside their own half.
The Boks may have been accused of kicking too much from hand, but from the vantage point of the Murrayfield press box it was clear that there wasn’t always much option, with Scotland effectively closing down the space on defence. They were penalised for off-sides a few times, but there were times when it looked as though they were constantly off-sides.
Perhaps the Boks should have kicked for goal more than they did. They turned down a kickable penalty in the first minutes, and then made a bit too much of a habit of it. They did get reward for the tactic when they powered inexorably over the line for Strauss to dot down after 20 minutes, and they might suggest the five points justified it, but by creating more space on the scoreboard earlier in the game, the Boks would have placed the Scots under greater pressure and more opportunities may have been offered.
Not that we should nit-pick, for this stadium was certainly a more joyful place for South Africans after this game than after either of the two most recent encounters in 2008 and 2010. The forwards set up the win by carrying on their command performance of the second half against Ireland, Willem Alberts signaling the intent with a bullocking drive across the gainline and then putting in a big hit that would have sent shudders of apprehension through the Scots.
But Alberts did not leave Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen behind when it came to influence. Indeed, Louw in particular continues to vindicate coach Heyneke Meyer’s decision to call him back from English club Bath to represent his country. And the theory is growing that being paired with Vermeulen, his former teammate from the Stormers, is behind the great recovery of an international career that looked like it had ended prematurely 18 months ago.
Louw and Vermuelen work well together in playing to the ball, and of course Louw gives Meyer what someone like Heinrich Brussow wouldn’t have as an openside flank as he is strongly built and thus satisifies the size criteria.
The rest of the Bok forwards were also impressive, no-one more so than hooker Strauss, who deserved his two tries to cap another performance that confirms him as an international hooker of true quality.
SCOTLAND –Try: Henry Pyrgos. Conversion: Greg Laidlaw. Penalty: Greg Laidlaw.
SOUTH AFRICA –Tries: Adriaan Strauss (2). Conversion: Patrick Lambie. Penalties: Patrick Lambie (3).