RWC23: South Africa v Scotland report: Springboks power to victory

Pack power and ferocious rush defence snuff out dark blue threat

Kurt-Lee Arendse of South Africa tackles Finn Russell of Scotland. Image: © Craig Watson -
Kurt-Lee Arendse of South Africa tackles Finn Russell of Scotland. Image: © Craig Watson -

South Africa 18

Scotland 3

DAVID BARNES @ Stade de Marseilles

THIS is what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object … in the same team. Try as they might, Scotland couldn’t get the sort of foothold in this game that they needed to cause a World Cup opening weekend shock against the reigning champions.

Scotland punched hard, fighting up a weight division at both scrum and breakdown, and made some headway. But they will be frustrated that their line-out which wasn’t under the same sort of pressure didn’t function as cleanly as they would have hoped.

Against South Africa’s ferocious rush defence, Finn Russell struggled to find ways to bring the dangerous strike-runners outside him into the game, and he wasn’t helped by the scarcity of front foot ball from his under-pressure forwards.

It was a brave performance, but Scotland needed everything to go right, then hope for a Springboks off day, and that’s not the way it panned out. They must refocus now on getting past Tonga on 25th September then Romania seven days later without a slip-up, before facing Ireland – the number one team in the world – in a must-win final pool match in Paris on 7th October.

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Four years ago, Scotland were blown away by Ireland in their opening match of the World Cup and never recovered. They will, at least, feel they have something to build on here.

A twitchy start by Scotland featured Blair Kinghorn failing to gather the kick-off, a charged down clearance on Finn Russell, Kinghorn and Richie Gray allowing a South African kick to bounce dangerously and Finn Russell throwing a hospital pass to Jack Dempsey, who was clattered by Jesse Kriel (with subsequent replays showing that there was head-on-head contact, prompting head coach Gregor Townsend to express frustration afterwards that the incident wasn’t reviewed by the TMO).

A solid first scrum steadied nerves, but an overthrown line-out handed the initiative back to South Africa and at the next scrum Scotland went down on Zander Fagerson’s side, which should have allowed Manie Libbok to open the scoring with a 10th minute penalty, but the Springbok stand-off pulled is shot at goal to the left of the posts.

It proved to be a temporary reprieve because South Africa came again, and although Scotland initially did a good job of disrupting the breakdown, Russell was penalised for a deliberate knock-on, and this time Libbok made no mistake from directly in front of the posts.

Scotland were being starved of possession and harassed by South Africa’s rush defence whenever they did manage to get their hands on the ball. They didn’t help themselves with two overthrown line-outs and line-out penalty against Jamie Ritchie for pulling down an opposition jumper during the first 20 minutes.

Tempers flared on 21-minutes but no punches landed, and Australian referee Angus Gardner wisely chose to take no further action after having a word with Scots skipper Ritchie and South African centre Damian de Allende.


South Africa were really attacking the breakdown and when Sione Tuipuloti got stuck under a pile of bodies he ended up conceding a holding-on penalty which allowed Libbok to double his team’s lead.

A collision between Russell and Kurt-Lee Arendse – which elicited a review on the big screen from Gardner but no sanction against Russell – left the Scotsman with sore ribs, but he battled on, and a few minutes later he finally managed to prise open a gap in the South African defensive line, which Darcy Graham streaked through. However, after one elegant dummy, the winger held on when he had men outside and a rare opportunity evaporated.

There was a big – potentially massive – moment just before half-time when Scotland, having survived a series of punishing South African mauls, got a nudge on at a scrum on halfway, and Fagerson made it count with a powerful surge which forced penalty out of Steven Kitshoff, which Russell coolly fired home to make it an improbable three-point game at the turnaround.


We didn’t have to wait long to find out if Scotland were going to be able to build on that score when the game restarted because Pierre Schoeman was almost immediately penalised for wheeling, and although Libbok’s long-range shot at goal fell well short, the tone had been set.

With 46 minutes played, South Africa claimed the first try of the contest through back-rower Pieter Steph Du Toit, who powered over after a period of pressure, and the Springboks followed that up with their second try – which decisively took the game away from Scotland – just three minutes later.

Richie Gray was turned over in midfield and Libbok sent over an inch-perfect kick to the unmarked Arendse on the right touchline. The winger gathered the ball without breaking stride and cantered home. Faf de Klerk – celebrating his 50th cap – took over kicking duties to add the touchline conversion.

Scotland kept fighting and their supporters had a moment of excitement when an excellent 50-22 from Russell led to a quick line-out throw which sent Darcy Graham over in the corner, but the try was never going to stand given that a different ball had been thrown in from in front of the mark.

Arendse and replacement Springbok scrum-half Grant Williams both threatened during the final stages of this match, but Scotland managed to hold out, with a brilliant tap-tackle by Russell halting the second of those attacks.


Teams –

South Africa: D Willemse; K Arendse, J Kriel, D de Allende, C Kolbe; M Libbok (W Le Roux 69) F de Klerk (G Williams 74); S Kitshoff (O Nche 53), M Marx (B Mbonambi 47), F Malherbe (T Nyakane 53), E Etzbeth (R Snyman 29), F Mosert, S Kolisi (M van Staden 64), P du Toit, J Weise (D Vermeulen 59).

Scotland: B Kinghorn; D Graham (O Smith 64), H Jones, S Tuipulotu (C Redpath, 66), D van der Merwe; F Russell, B White (A Price 66); P Schoeman (J Bhatti, 55), G Turner (D Cherry 55), Z Fagerson (W Nel 55), R Gray, G Gilchrist (S Cummings 55), J Ritchie, R Darge (M Fagerson 64), J Dempsey.

Referee: Angus Gardner


Scorers –

South Africa: Tries: du Toit, Arendse; Con: de Klerk; Pen: Libbok 2.

Scotland: Pen: Russell.

Scoring sequence (South Africa first): 3-0; 6-0; 6-3 (h-t) 11-3; 16-3; 18-3.


Attendance: 63,566

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About David Barnes 3816 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.


  1. I am not a rugby tactician but surely Mr Townsend a had a fair idea how SA would play and once again he failed. Thought our forwards showed immense courage in the face of an awsome SA pack our backs made some strange decisions white line fever by DG? but in my humble opinion had Finn stepped up and been able to get the ball wide we would have run them even closer. Only one question left who will stop SA?

    • I suspect you are right with your first comment …!

      Look again, DG had no-one to pass to as the SA 10 had taken out BK outside him …

      Has it maybe struck you that SA are pretty good and that actually our guys did the best they could, including Mr T? It just didn’t quite come off on the day, esp in the early 2nd Half. Prior to Stern Vern and Mr T we’d have been wiped out in the first 15 mins. At least this time round we retained hope into the second half and if the Refs had been doing their jobs properly, we might even have had a shot ….

      Couple of good games and we can look forward to giving Ireland a fright, all-be-it only a fool would expect us to go through now. But by God I’m rooting for the guys to do it and will enjoy every minute.

  2. Second best but not too far behind the reigning champions and probable best side in the World isn’t too bad with (on paper) easier games to come.

  3. With yet another dreadful first 10 minutes or so, the fact that we went in at half time at 6-3 was that encouraging or a false picture?
    Was the fact that SA scored 2 tries in the space of 4 or 5 minutes an indication that they just did enough to win and then sat back?
    Or was it a tenacious display that kept the score to 18-3?
    Considering it was the RWC and not a warm up game at Twickenham, did we make a better fist of it than NZ?
    I don’t think Darcy Graham expected to be caught from behind, consequently with the no players in front of him and clear to the line, well you get my point, but it could have been a game changer.
    Would a Red card for Kriel have made any difference, who knows, sometimes if you’re a player down it galvanises the team, and I fancy SA would have coped but to reprise Soccer’s Jimmy Greaves, ‘it’s a strange old game’.
    With the draw obviously we had to beat SA or Ireland to go through, our only hope was to catch SA ‘Cold’ [they were a bit Tepid in the first half] or beat Ireland in the last, providing we don’t get Banana skinned on the way.
    Whatever which way it goes we can’t afford to have [yet another] a sloppy start again especially against Ireland.
    As one of the contributors to the comments in the OSL said recently, it’s the hope and expectations that kills us: ain’t it just.

  4. Scotland apart from one chance that Graham butchered because that is exactly what he did never looked like scoring. The score should have been a great deal more as they left a lot of points on the pitch. You can see why VDM never progressed past SA 20s as against the better teams just having sheer physicality and strength is not enough and is defensively woeful. Nel was thrown into the lions den and was eaten up but better Nel than Sebastian as he would have been eaten up as well and may never have recovered from such a mauling. All so predictable.

    • VDM is a way better player than the one who left SA. If he was allowed back into the team of his birth he would make their first team. He is one of the top wingers in world rugby, we just couldn’t get the ball to him and on the 2 occasions we did he was immediately set upon by 3 of the opposition, that’s how big a threat they saw.

  5. In the cold light of the morning after I feel a bit more pragmatic. There’s a reason they are the world champions and we are ranked 5th in the world. We’re a good team and they’re a great team. I roared with the scrum penalty just before half time but with hindsight we just poked the bear. It will be interesting to see if we learn for the Irish game how to get the lineout functioning and unlock their rush defence but in the meantime we just need to pick ourselves up and show a reaction against Tonga.

  6. Most revealing was when the ref wanted to see on screen what caused the punch up. This was a de Allende forearm smash to White’s head but that was never shown. When the tackle in to touch was shown later, the coverage showed the tackle, which was excellent, but was cut just before the forearm smash.

    Fiji must also feel a bit hard done by. They should have had a penalty try for the no arms tackle when they knocked on in goal. Three penalties by Wales in the red zone gets a warning but, in the next phase, one by Fiji gets a straight yellow – no warning. Also Dan Bigger should have seen yellow in that last phase in front of the posts when he stood offside and went for the ball – not even a penalty. Where’s the consistency?

    • Completely agree, how Wales didn’t lose more players to the bin was a joke, and I’d previously thought he was a good referee. Was is there no come bac, World Rugby should have to explain themselves.

  7. It was always going to be a tough ask and it turned out that way, but still very deflated. As other’s said we always struggle against a very good rush defense particularly when it’s off-side much of the time as so it proved to be. When we are going backwards under a rush defense we rarely hear of our much vaunted backs and so it proved. We had three goodish chances for tries but Graham I’m sure on his death bed will wonder how he blew a 3 to 1 over lap that should have had us ahead, before 1/2 time. The line out malfunctioned badly particularly in their 22. Our first half scrum went well especially the one were we blew SA off the ball.
    Best of our players Dempsey another great game, think we missed Horne , took me a while to realise Price was even on the pitch and maybe M Fagerson might have been a better option than Darge but that’s the joy of hindsight. Our side of the draw is proving to be a tough as we thought it would be.

  8. One swallow doesn’t make a Summer so one bad game doesn’t make a bad team.We we’re outgunned by a very physical team and I think that even if a red card had been given we would still have struggled against 14 men. That said, the TMO had a shocker missing more than the potential red card incident and the ability for the SA backs to tackle so quickly genuinely made me think that SA have developed the science of teleportation… would not have been surprised to see Captain Kirk come on as a sub.
    We must all temper our criticism with the knowledge that the team did not go out there to play badly but came up against a very well disciplined, physical and extremely savvy side who used the ref to great effect.
    Perhaps we need to employ a Senior Savvy coach…any takers from the armchair experts?

  9. Line-out troubles didn’t help but the reason we lost is that both teams carried a similar number of times (94 v 85) but South Africa made 5.8m/ carry where we made 2.6m. They carried over the gain line twice as often as we did.

    It was like a middleweight fighting a heavyweight.

    This is the biggest reason we don’t consistently challenge the bigger teams.

  10. Great atmosphere in Marseilles before the game but I’m afraid it was downhill thereafter. I said before the game that we needed to almost faultless to beat SA and we were not. Line out was the main failing but the usual mix of knock ons in contact and spilt attempts at catching the high ball meant we could not build any sort of continuity or pressure. Barely went through more than 2 or 3 phases against their rush defence. SA much more accurate in the same areas. Finns magic didn’t come off and you sometimes need a lucky bounce. We don’t seem to able to get that special performance in the big games and I suppose the reality is we’re not quite good enough.

    I do agree with the refereeing and offside comments- I was sitting about half way and could see right across the line – always a bit offside to start and often a defender moving forward before pass made. Don’t think ref picked them up once.

  11. SA bossed the game, I’m surprised FR didn’t try to knock some wee chips over the top to keep them honest. Surely that is what you do to make them think twice about rushing? No time for territorial kicks, no time for passing.

    Bookies had us losing by twelve and have been more or less spot on so far.

  12. Surprised to see (not surprised at all tbh) that the merchants pushing the ‘best Scotland side ever’ are posted missing here. Tbf tho the ref n tmo were even worse than our line out which is some effort. Hit on Dempsey was a straight red as was the forearm smash by Allende on white. The late hit on Finn was also a yellow. Some Clancy/ Lacey standard terrible higher rankings bias right there. Equally whilst I always moan on about Horne….no half backs can shine when opposition can start 5 yards offside every phase. Seriously one of the worst officiated matches in RWC history n I include 2015 in that.

    • So we have been let down by World Rugby again. The only way forward is to keep improving and hope that the officiating teams also improve. The TMO has no accountability which I feel is wrong. In my view yesterday’s TMO should be removed from World Cup duty. I read Tom English’s usual drivel where he states that Scots should be incensed about the lack of a red card. I am incensed, but I think it is not just Scots – I think the whole rugby community should be and I think, to a large degree, it is.

      Libbok’s kick to Arendse was a thing of beauty and you have to take that on the chin and these moments will happen in a game – you just have to create your own moments in return.

      Let’s not forget that Glasgow managed to win the Pro 12 in the face of the ridiculous Irish refereeing at that time. You just have to take the officials out of the equation as much as you can. That was difficult yesterday.

  13. A brave, battling defensive performance in the first half culminating in what could have been a change in momentum. South Africa regrouped at half time and second half overwhelmed Scotland. WP has been a fine servant of Scottish rugby but this has been a tournament too far. The pressure applied caused numerous errors and the vaunted Scottish back division never showed as an attacking force. VdM anonymous, Kinghorn exposed under the high ball. Russell tried to make things happen but was well marshaled. Smith must return for Tonga, and Steyn for probably VdM. In the forwards we looked underpowered so M Fagerson needs to come in as blindside. Cherry should start.

  14. Enough with the negative talk. Scotland didn’t “not show up” or “fail to get a shot off”, nor did Finn “have an off-day”. We were outmuscled by the world champions, whose previous game had seen them stuff the All Blacks to the tune of 35 points.
    Yes, our lineout didn’t function (post-mortem, please), and we didn’t get out creative players creating, but this Boks team is extremely proficient at smothering. I mean, how possible is it to be so up in the face of every Scotland move without ever being offside?!? Looking at the Wales vs Fiji match, there seems to be acres of space all over the pitch in comparison.
    Also, go easy on Darcy. He had a nanosecond when a pass might have gone to hand, but the cover was all over our team.
    This feels completely different from 27-3 in 2019. For a start, S.A. are genuinely the best team there and on top form, and we faced up to them for a lot of the game.

  15. 6 attacking lineouts lost in the opposition 22′. Can someone explain as to why when up to today we have had a functioning lineout would you change the system to one which seemed lost. It reminds me of the early 2000’s when Scott Murray won everything to then shifting the system to one like to today where we never had a lineout which won anything.

    There were times I also felt there were similar patterns in attack which resembled the first half of the Georgia game.

    Plus side I suppose we have no injuries and at least our national anthem wasn’t butchered as similar to others!

  16. And finally … seems like our only chance now is that Ireland tear themselves apart trying (and failing) to beat SA, and we swoop in and rob them in the last game.

  17. Sadly predictable. After 7 years Townsends teams still look shocked and incapable of overcoming a rush defence. Line out was an embarassment, scrum fell apart in the second half and we were well beaten at the breakdown.It never ceases to amaze me how ex internationals get caught up in the hype of this team and Townsend but the average fan has a much more pragmatic view of this groups capabilities. We are simply not good enough up front to deal with the powerhouses of rugby for 80 minutes.

  18. OK referee moan, look away if not interested …

    Red Card all day, SRU should sue (!)

    But also, when we had the 3-1 overlay, Libbok misses DG but then takes out Kinghorn …. preventing the offload and thereby probably the try …. ?? Anyone else see it like that ?

  19. Re De Klerk, can someone explain what the actual law is, can the SH effectively come right round the scrum, seems to me that must be offside, but never gets penalised >>>???

  20. Was optimistic at half time… we looked like we turning the screw. SA players coaches and fans looked concerned.
    Thought we physically held our ground …but failed to execute in important phases. Lineout was poor..2nd half dire..Scrum was pretty good until the replacements…Nel in particular had a poor match and got mullered in the scrum. Id give Sebastian a crack at it next time
    Russell played well defensively but he made poor decisions under increasing pressure.

    No idea how the SA SH De Klerk constantly gets to infringe at the scrum without penalty …often goes round the refs blindside…and looks offside most of time.

    If it’s an SA v England final…im going to find something else to do with my time. Terrible rugby for the opposition and neutrals.

    • Re De Klerk, can someone explain what the actual law is, can the SH effectively come right round the scrum, seems to me that must be offside, but never gets penalised >>>???

    • Re Nel, for his age he’s amazing and has been a fantastic servant, but we should have stronger options now. It’s crazy to expect that he can stand up to possibly the strongest front row in the world …

  21. Feel just as flat after that as during the world cup in Japan. Congratulations to South Africa for just out playing us. We’ve struggled with rush defences a lot over recent years, then the lineout frailties returned under serious pressure and we couldnt build phases when we did get some ball.

  22. Despite some excellent cameos, Scotland overwhelmed by suffocating SA defensive line-speed & superior overall physicality. A reality check for the wishful thinkers…..

  23. Sadly, the game went as many of us feared.

    We were simply overpowered.

    The line out didn’t function well, and the scrum in the 2nd half was a mess…almost totally due to SA pressure.

    On top of that, Finn had an off day and Kinghorn looked vulnerable under the high ball.

    Our best (only?) chance now is for SA to beat Ireland, giving us a one-off match against Ireland to progress. Presuming we beat Tonga and Romania of course.

  24. Really disappointing performance from Scotland. Didn’t show up and SA barely got out of third gear. Lineouts and break downs were especially poor.

  25. whenever Scotland had ruck possession SA’s defensive line spent the whole game offside!! We need proper refereeing. They were only penalised in the last couple of minutes – presumably at TMO insistance!

    • If the ref doesn’t see it for the bigger decisions, the TMO should.. Kriel should have seen red under the current laws, and Kitshoff was obstructing in an offside position on their first try. The only time the TMO woke up was to question Russell’s no arms tackle, and that was immediately after Arendse stopped a clear try to take out a player in the air to make a knock on for a catch he never had a chance of making.

      All that said, Scotland didn’t show up. Out set piece was atrocious. Each penalty against us in the scrums and line outs looked fair. It would be understandable if it wasn’t so familiar. We also blew every single opening that was given to us and never really came close to troubling them.

      • Each team had two good chances, Boks took both of theirs, DG and Price butchered ours. Neither team really got good front foot ball, fair to say though SA shaded it. First try I thought Kitchoff ran in front of PST and prevented fair contest, 2nd try Weise crawled through the ruck hands on the ground to win turnover. Fairly sure Whitehouse would have flagged both up if it had been us similarly benefitting.. all said and done, we couldn’t score due to no platform from 1st phase, especially lineout which looks overly complicated and is often shambolic. The final lineout at the end also highlighted that we get pinged often for “leaving the lineout and coming back in”, so why do it? That said, everyone else does without getting penalized so that’s more inconsistency for you.. Ireland have usually got a flying wedge on the go before the lifters have put down the jumper… 🙄 10 weeks in camp practicing what exactly?? 🙄

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