COMPARED to the 27-3 defeat Scotland suffered against Ireland on the opening weekend of the last World Cup in Japan four years ago, Sunday night’s 18-3 loss against South Africa doesn’t sting nearly as badly.
That match in 2019 devastated the players, leaving deep scars from which some never really recovered. The following eight days in Kobe, while the team waited for their chance to get back on the horse against Samoa, were tortuous. And even though they won that game [34-0] then the following pool match against Russia [61-0], their shattered confidence was evident when Scotland were next properly tested in their final pool match against Japan [losing 28-21 to tumble out of the tournament before reaching the knock-out stages].
In contrast, while Scotland didn’t ever really look like beating the world champions on Sunday, they remained competitive throughout, which means they can head into this bye-week, followed by their clash against Tonga on Sunday 24th September, with morale mostly intact. They then face Romania the following weekend before taking on Ireland, in what they hope will be a do-or-die clash in Paris, on 7th October.
“Of course,” replied head coach Gregor Townsend, when asked if he is feeling more positive now than he did at this stage of the last World Cup. “We didn’t start all that great [against South Africa]. We were in our 22 and our half for the first 10 to 15 minutes, lost our first line-out and put ourselves under pressure a couple of times with ball in hand, but we ended up coming through that period with a real strong scrum, dealing with their kicks and putting some attack plays together.
“It would have been great to have more points on the board than just three [from a Finn Russell penalty on the stroke of half-time], but having gone through that first half, it was there for us, and disappointingly South Africa grabbed the game at the start of the third quarter and it was hard to bring back.
“The reason we lost was that we weren’t accurate enough. We didn’t play well enough in the third quarter when we had got ourselves in a position where we normally kick on.
“It was definitely harder to attack with the ball being that little bit slippery,” he added. “If you’re behind on the scoreboard, it’s that little bit tougher to be accurate but we know we have to be more accurate than we were on Sunday.”
The Scotland squad have now returned to the Golden Tulip Hotel, their World Cup base near Nice, and the players will take a two-and-a-half day break from rugby before starting work on preparing for the Tonga game.
“It’s definitely a good thing [to have a fortnight off],” said Townsend. “South Africa is probably going to be our most bruising game, although Tonga, Ireland and Romania will probably say they will be as physically challenging.
“But given the heat, the fact it was our first game and guys were cramping up, we could do with some recovery time. Also, we have a lot of families coming out to take the players’ minds off rugby for two or three days. We now know what’s going to be in front of us – three games we must win.
“It was a big ask for Darcy Graham [who missed the final warm-up match with a quad injury] in that heat to play 80 minutes at top pace,” he said, when asked for a medical update. “It was a very stop-start game which wouldn’t have suited the wingers. It was great that him and Blair Kinghorn got through because they were the two guys who had niggles. I don’t think there are any issues with anyone else.”
Ultimately, Sunday’s game got away from Scotland when they lost two tries inside the space of three minutes early in the second half, with flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit bundling over on 47 minutes and winger Kurt-Lee Arendse sprinting home off Manie Libbok’s sensational no-look cross-kick on 50 minutes.
A very similar thing happened during Scotland’s only defeat in their warm-up schedule, when Damian Penaud and Charles Ollivon scored in the 42nd and 44th minutes of a 30-27 victory for France in Saint-Etienne.
Townsend’s team also conceded quick-fire tries in the fourth and seventh minutes of their loss in France during the last Six Nations, and in the 56th and 61st minutes of their defeat at home to Ireland in the final game of that championship a fortnight later – but the coach rejected the suggestion that this is a pattern he should be concerned about.
“It happens in games,” he retorted. “I wouldn’t say it was a theme. If you’re talking about themes, previously it would have been us being behind at half-time.
“We obviously had possession then we had a fumble, they got a scrum penalty, got through a few phases then got another scrum penalty. They were putting us under pressure, so you have to credit them for making the most of their opportunities
“They were more dominant in the second half around the scrum. We put a really good scrum performance in in that first half, but fresh legs helped them.”
Townsend concluded by indicating that he is minded to look for consistency in selection when he gets round to naming his team for the Tonga match.
“We’ll review the South Africa game in more detail. There are a few areas we have to improve, but I believe the team that played on Sunday is more likely to get that second opportunity,” he said.